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NM needs the expanded care teledentistry provides now more than ever

Several years ago, I founded the American Teledentistry Association (ATDA), a nonprofit whose mission is to increase the access to dental care for underserved populations through innovative teledentistry guidelines and solutions. …

Currently, New Mexico has one of the highest incidences of gum disease in the country, 52% prevalence in 2019. Growing research has also demonstrated a connection between oral health and other chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, aspiration pneumonia and osteoporosis. Each year in the United States, there are approximately 2 million hospital emergency department visits for non-traumatic dental problems which could have been easily treated at a dental office with the help of teledentistry before they became acute.

The unfortunate truth is that access to dental care in New Mexico and many other states was a serious problem before the COVID-19 pandemic that has only worsened.

In New Mexico, unlike in other states, there exists a robust telemedicine statute called New Mexico Telehealth Act. This innovative piece of legislation can serve as a model for national telehealth policy. To that end, during the 2019 N.M. legislative session, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, with the support of the ATDA, introduced and passed Senate Bill 241 titled “Site of Teledentistry.” The legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support by seeking to incorporate key aspects of the existing New Mexico Telehealth Act into the New Mexico Dental Practice Act.

The legislation would have increased access to dental care throughout the state by making it easier to provide care to underserved individuals in both rural and urban areas. However, as the bill sat on Gov. (Michelle Lujan) Grisham’s desk, a national orthodontic dental trade group swooped in and gave her misinformation, leading to the veto of SB 241.

Unfortunately, the misinformation campaign started by the orthodontists continues to this day, with many in organized dentistry fighting the idea of teledentistry based solely on an unsubstantiated fear that it will take business away from brick-and-mortar practices. The truth is that any tool that can increase access to needed dental care should be seen as a welcome innovation and not a threat.

With the need to increase access to quality dental care in mind, the ATDA and I remain committed to working with dental health professionals in New Mexico to come up with a compromise teledentistry bill that we can put in front of Gov. Lujan Grisham for consideration.

Let’s not let past differences dissuade us from implementing important legislation that could help many New Mexicans access quality dental care during the current crises and well into the future. With simple tools such as smartphones and laptop webcams, dentists can see the most vulnerable dental patients safely in their homes, thereby eliminating their risk of infection.

It is the dental community’s ethical and professional obligation to make sure that in this time of great anxiety, people can rest assured that New Mexico’s dental leadership is considering every means at its disposal to provide dental care to those in need without exposing them to unnecessary risks and expense.

Dr. Ackerman is a resident of Massachusetts.

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