In summary

Telehealth offers wider access to health care for many Californians, and the Legislature should reject any bills that would create a barrier to affordable dental services.

By Alice A. Huffman, Special to CalMatters

Alice A. Huffman is president of NAACP-California, alicehuffman@sbcglobal.net. 

Now, more than ever, the African American community needs as many options as possible to close the disparity gap for oral health care. African Americans and other people of color have the right to affordable, quality health care treatment.

From psychiatry to physical therapy to dentistry, the benefits of the telehealth model are profound. Patients receive expert care in some cases without the added trouble of traveling to see a doctor or paying high visitation fees. But in other cases, access to experts in a specific field, such as neurology or orthodontia, are limited. 

In the current throes of the coronavirus pandemic, these services are critical for Californians in need of health care or dental care. For example, the California Dental Association issued a statement recently strongly recommending that “dentists practicing in California voluntarily suspend nonessential or non-urgent dental care” for two weeks.

But with the use of teledentistry services, Californians can still receive dental care from their homes as they do their part to self-isolate to “flatten the curve.” For example, SmileDirectClub pioneered a teledentistry platform for clear aligner therapy treatment that has helped more than 100,000 Californians, including African Americans. With straighter teeth, it is easier to secure employment, promotions and feel more self-confident.

Gov. Gavin Newsom highlighted the importance of embracing telehealth advances recently saying, “To get Californians the care they need during this crisis, we need to change how that care is delivered and communicated. By expanding our telehealth options we’re minimizing disruption to our health care system to prioritize care for those who need it most, while providing easier, more accessible options for other Californians seeking care.”

The lack of access to health care has been an issue the African American community has experienced for decades, especially regarding oral health. A PEW Research study found that “communities of color have much higher rates of tooth decay and tooth loss and fewer dental visits and preventive treatments than white populations.” 

In 2015, the American Dental Association issued a report, “Minority Oral Health in America: Despite Progress, Disparities Persist,” that quoted Dr. Ada Cooper saying, “When you talk about racial barriers, you can’t avoid talking about economic barriers. I think increasingly today as historical racial barriers are being broken down on some levels, the economic barriers continue to persist.”

The lack of access to affordable dental care is often a barrier to getting jobs, and improved oral health can increase confidence in daily life. For many, teledentistry innovations break down some of those racial and economic barriers. It can create a more affordable and approachable opportunity to access dental care services, such as teeth straightening, that can make a significant difference in an individual’s life.

Prior to this global health crisis, we have seen the established industry making efforts to squash these innovations or worse, even manufacture scare tactics. But there should not be a fear – teledentistry has licensed dentists and orthodontists, and uses technological innovation to make these services more accessible and affordable to consumers.

We hope that we can put aside the fears of innovation and encourage these advances to continue to flourish as they can provide needed non-urgent care to African Americans and all Californians.

The crisis has changed our world. We hope that when the Legislature comes back in session, they focus on ways to encourage and embrace teledentistry services, and reject any legislation that adds barriers such as additional costs or unnecessary in-person visits.

Taking away telehealth options from the African American community and from people of color will widen the gap and stifle innovation in an industry with unlimited potential. 

Teledentistry can, and does, provide solutions to these challenges facing underserved, minority communities in California. We encourage policymakers to continue to support advances that help all of us receive the health and dental care we need.

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Alice A. Huffman is president of NAACP-California, alicehuffman@sbcglobal.net. 

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