When it comes to orthodontic care, an alarming number of Americans are shut out due to expensive services and lack of access, highlighted further during travel bans and office restrictions. Verma Media found the average cost of braces is between $5000 and $6000, and only 40% of U.S. counties even boast a brick-and-mortar orthodontist’s office. While most orthodontists probably hope that people will be forced to just pony up the cash, the reality is that most people wind up going without. That comes at a significant mental cost to a large portion of Americans. In fact, 25% of adults surveyed said that they actually avoided smiling due to the condition of their teeth, and 20-25% of adults surveyed reported feelings of embarrassment and anxiety. We are living in the era of the selfie and generally speaking we are on camera much more often than we used to be. Considering this, a smile that someone can feel confident in becomes that much more important.
But the problems with a lack of proper dental and orthodontic care goes far beyond aesthetics. Poor oral health and poor overall health are inextricably linked. Periodontal disease can lead to an increased risk of cancer, and the bacteria found in your mouth can circulate and contribute to heart disease and stroke. Shutting people out of affordable and accessible dental and orthodontic services essentially ensures that they will not achieve optimal health. Verma Media feels there is a significant need in the market for affordable and convenient oral care solutions where travel is not required for in person visits.
The Historic Resistance to At-Home Dental and Orthodontic Services
Teledentistry is the use of communication technologies to provide dental consultation, treatment, and support. Generally speaking, it is a fraction of the cost of traditional dental and orthodontic services and since treatment happens online, it is accessible from anywhere with a connection.
Recent history has shown an attempt to limit the reach of teledentistry services. Clinicians worried about licensure issues for remote consultations that were to happen across state lines. But underneath the publicized concerns regarding the legality and efficacy of remote dental treatment was the unspoken fear that teledentistry services would cannibalize business for brick and mortar oral care offices.
These concerns, while largely unfounded, have held the dental and orthodontics industry back. You can buy a car or travel package from your smartphone, use Teledoc for a remote pediatrician, but the oral care industry has yet to adopt mobile technology on a large scale. 77% of adults surveyed said that they planned to visit their dentist within the next year, but only 37% of them actually did so. The 40% who never made it to an appointment had no other workable option. Not only did they wind up failing to take care of their own oral health, but they failed to generate revenue for the dental industry as well. In this way, oral health, overall health, and the dental care industry was suffering. The underserved population of people who could not reasonably keep up with regular dental care went largely ignored until a global pandemic forced accessibility.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Accelerated the Adoption of Teledentistry Services
The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated telehealth services in a dramatic way. With non-essential appointments and procedures cancelled across the nation, the majority of healthcare providers turned to video consults and remote treatment. The pandemic is expected to result in an 80% year-over-year growth in the telehealth market, and the teledentistry industry is not far behind. While business and personal travelers had been early adopters, this crisis has spotlighted how effective it can be for both the doctors and broader population to take advantage of.
The American Dental Association has published guidelines for triaging and consulting with patients remotely, and there are even new billing codes in place that reimburse dentists and orthodontists for remote consultations. The Coronavirus pandemic essentially opened the floodgates to teledentistry services, and the increased accessibility has led to some surprising results. Namely, that people who elect to straighten their teeth at home are more likely to continue a regime of care where they had previously gone without.
How At-Home Aligners Have Positively Impacted the Entire Oral Care Market
At-home aligners have been on the market for years through vendors like SmileDirectClub, Candid, and byte. For many, they offer a first step into teledentistry. Traditional orthodontic treatments like braces and even Invisalign are priced too high for the majority of consumers, and so at-home aligners serve a previously untapped market.
Following the COVID-19 lockdown orders, both byte and SmileDirectClub opened up their nationwide network of dental professionals to people at home, free of charge. Their network doctors were flooded with requests for consultations and referrals. Many byte customers inquired about teeth cleaning, stating that they wanted to keep their newly straightened smile healthy and strong. Once lockdown orders are lifted, dentists across the nation will likely be inundated with new patients, most of whom were not seeing a regular dentist previously. As it turns out, at-home doctor prescribed aligner services did not cannibalize business for dentists or orthodontists, instead, it created new customers for brick and mortar oral care professionals.
This is a trend that has been observed before. When SmileDirectClub hit the market a few years ago and steadily grew their marketing spend, sales for Invisalign increased proportionally. This offered early evidence that an increased focus on oral health bolsters the entire market, and this is exactly what we are seeing today on a much larger scale.
The COVID-19 crisis, while horrific in so many ways, has had the unintended positive outcome of making dental and orthodontic care more accessible. Both Smile Direct Club and Byte announced insurance partnerships with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield in the last month that will bring millions of members ‘in network’ options for at-home teledentistry services. That accessibility has uncovered nearly 70 million Americans who were going without regular care, and has inspired many of them to focus on their oral, and by extension, overall health for the first time.
Which At-Home Aligners Are Here to Stay
While SmileDirectClub continues to serve their market and Invisalign rushes to catch up with a new consumer application, byte is thinking ahead to the long term future of teledentistry services and how to work side-by-side with the dental industry. Recently, Techcrunch highlighted byte’s upcoming bytePro launch in conjunction with dentists and orthodontists. The goal of bytePro is to offer “in-person” consultations for those consumers that would like to be seen by a local dentist/orthodontist but would also like to use byte for their aligner treatment and remote monitoring/teledentistry platform. byte’s cadence of improving smile aesthetics and then referring their customers to local dentists will soon demonstrate an improvement in both oral and overall health across the nation. Byte is poised to capture this market and to improve the lives of millions.