Dentists watch jaws on their TV screens

The University's teledentistry program helps residents of Hibbing.

Jamie VanGeest

A toothbrush, fluoride, a drill and a television screen are the key equipment in the University’s teledentistry program.

The Minnesota Department of Health, the University’s School of Dentistry and the Hibbing Community College Dental Clinic have collaborated to provide dental care to patients who do not have access to a specialist in Hibbing.

Specialists at the University started seeing patients over the summer.

Teledentistry involves dentists using a television screen so they can see the other doctor. The camera is attached to the screen so the doctor can adjust the picture by moving the screen.

The transmission is sent over the Internet, and the camera takes pictures of the patient that are added to an electronic medical record.

The main problem specialists treat is jaw joint pain.

This condition affects eight women to every one man, said James Fricton, a University dentistry professor.

The symptoms include clicking or a pain in the joints, tension headaches, clicking and locking in the jaws, tooth problems and earaches.

The teledentistry program was inspired by the Medical School’s already-established telemedicine program that reaches 20 rural clinics in the state.

One patient Fricton viewed over the plasma screen was a woman who hadn’t been to a dentist in five years.

Fricton said the patient had suffered from jaw pain she rated as a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10. Her primary reason for not seeking treatment was the six-hour drive from Hibbing to Minneapolis to see a specialist. She had been seeing Dr. Jerry Pedersen, the head of the Hibbing Community College Dental Clinic.

Fricton advised Pedersen and a dental assistant to take impressions of the patient’s mouth and apply a splint. Over the next few months, Fricton said, he will advise the patient over the television on how to treat her pain.

Nelson Rhodus, a professor of oral medicine at the University’s School of Dentistry, also uses the teledentistry program to examine mouth lesions for oral cancer. Rhodus uses a special camera that focuses on the lesions.

The program also treats mild to moderate sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes snoring because the airway is blocked. For treatment, the specialist advises the doctor to move the jaw forward so the airway isn’t blocked, Fricton said.

So far, the clinic in Hibbing has seen about eight patients, but Pedersen said he expects to see more because the clinic just started advertising the teledentistry program this month.

Hong Chen, coordinator for the teledentistry program, said the program is beneficial because patients from northern Minnesota no longer have to make the long trek to Minneapolis.