Press Release

Pew Commends California for Dental Telehealth Program

State will be first to implement innovative system to expand access to services

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WASHINGTON—The Pew Charitable Trusts today commended California’s new law that expands the Virtual Dental Home, an innovative program that uses telehealth technology to bring dental services directly to patients in community settings, such as preschools, elementary schools, and nursing homes.

Under the program, dental hygienists and assistants perform preventive care and provide patient information electronically for review by an off-site dentist. At the direction of the dentist, the providers can also place temporary fillings. Patients who need more advanced care are referred to a dentist. Because of this program, people who often have extremely limited access to dental health services will receive the care they need.

“Pilot programs of the Virtual Dental Home are already improving access to care at dozens of sites throughout the state,” said Shelly Gehshan, who directs children’s dental policy for Pew.  “The state’s action will allow the program to grow and serve even more people who are going without care. Pew is proud to be a part of the coalition supporting these efforts.” 

A recent Pew study examined how the Virtual Dental Home worked at an elementary school in Sacramento, where the program provided cost-effective services to low-income children who did not have a regular source of dental care.

The law, Assembly Bill 1174, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, makes permanent two key parts of the Virtual Dental Home pilot program: It expands the scope of practice for dental assistants and hygienists and provides payment for telehealth-enabled dental services under California’s Medicaid program. The legislation was sponsored by Assemblymember Raul Bocanegra and supported by dentists and hygienists in the state.

“The Virtual Dental Home is an excellent example of utilizing highly trained dental team members under the direction of a dentist, supported by technology, to increase access to dental care in a cost-effective way,” said James Stephens, D.D.S., president of the state dental association. “The California Dental Association is greatly appreciative of the passage of A.B. 1174 and the legislature’s commitment to extending essential dental services to vulnerable populations through the Virtual Dental Home.”

“Hygienists with additional licensure are serving developmentally disabled patients at home, as well as patients in skilled nursing facilities, residential homes, and in schools,” said Karine Strickland, president of the California Dental Hygienists’ Association. “The populations they serve cannot easily access a traditional dental office. The Virtual Dental Home model will greatly complement these current efforts to increase access to dental hygiene care and will help Californians thrive. CDHA is pleased to support The Pew Charitable Trusts in these efforts.”

According to the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, which operates the Virtual Dental Home pilot program, more than 30 percent of Californians are unable to meet their oral health needs through the traditional dental care system. Some 54 percent of California’s Medicaid-enrolled children received no dental care in 2012 and even fewer received preventive care services. The Virtual Dental Home program is designed to address a variety of factors that prevent children from receiving dental care, including transportation needs or a local shortage of dental providers.

“This is a huge victory for California’s children and children across the nation,” said Wendy Lazarus, founder and co-president of The Children’s Partnership. “By combining workforce innovations with advances in technology, California is now one step closer to closing the dental care gap kids face and reducing the number of children who miss school or are distracted by pain resulting from the number one chronic health problem among children—dental disease.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Learn more at www.pewtrusts.org

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