Sarrell Dental Center, a nonprofit organization with 15 clinics across the state, has spent more than $1 million in recent months to upgrade its technology to increase efficiency and expand its reach in the community.
The upgrades include the addition of telemedicine, a growing technology in the state that some experts say can help address the lack of sufficient health care in rural areas.
Telemedicine involves the use of telecommunication technology to provide health care from a distance. The technology ranges from instant video sharing of X-rays to devices that can show a patient’s vital signs in real time to a physician hundreds of miles away.
Sarrell is purchasing several telemedicine devices and will start using them out in the field by the beginning of the upcoming school year, said Jeff Parker, CEO of Sarrell Dental. The technology involves small mobile carts that carry screens attached to small cameras that can be inserted into a patient's mouth. A dentist from anywhere in the state can view what the camera is seeing by accessing an application on his smartphone or computer. The dentist can then decide if the patient needs immediate care.
"This will help us get to more children who are not getting dental care," Parker said.
Burt Arthur, vice president of finance at Sarrell, said telemedicine will cut down on travel time for dentists and let them cover a wider area. Arthur said Sarrell will mainly use the technology at schools. Later, Sarrell will use the telemedicine at day care centers, summer camps, Head Start programs and community events, he said.
"We can do Wellborn Elementary and Jacksonville Elementary in the same time period without the dentist having to travel, where before we might could only do Jacksonville," Arthur said.
Sarrell is the main provider in Alabama of dental care for low-income children on Medicaid. Sarrell treated about 130,000 patients last year.
Warren Bailey, a dentist with Sarrell, said he looks forward to using the telemedicine technology.
"There are so many children in the state that don't have access to a dentist ... this breaks down some of those barriers," Bailey said.
According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, the only counties in Alabama that are not short on dentists are Shelby County and part of Madison County. Also, 55 of Alabama's 67 counties, including Calhoun County, are considered rural and 44.4 percent of the state's population live in rural areas, which typically lack sufficient health care like dentistry.
"Dental care shortage is particularly bad for the low-income area population," said Dale Quinney, executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association. "We need at least 262 dentists strategically placed in the state to deal with the shortage."
Quinney said telemedicine could help bring more dental services to children in rural areas of the state.
"I could certainly see, at least in school-based clinics, having dentists or oral surgeons looking at teeth," Quinney said.
Lloyd Sirmons, director of the Alabama Partnership of Telehealth, a nonprofit that works to expand the use of telemedicine in the state, said his organization has so far not pushed the technology much in the dental industry. However, the organization has helped other medical fields use the technology in rural areas. The organization has 30 partners so far signed onto its telemedicine network.
"It's bringing the specialist to the patient who may not have adequate access ... who are living out in the middle of nowhere," Sirmons said. "And there is also cost savings, particularly for Medicaid and Medicare ... savings on the money they spend to send someone to a specialist."
In addition to its work with telemedicine, Sarrell has purchased a digital teeth scanner that can create three-dimensional teeth impressions that dentists can use for various procedures, such as creating crowns and bridges for patients. Dentists have traditionally used a hardening gel to create a mold of patients’ teeth.
With the new technology, a dentist can use a special camera to scan a patient's teeth, which creates a digital 3-D model on a touchscreen. The dentist can then zoom in and see all angles of a particular tooth.
Parker said the goal is to eventually have such a device at every Sarrell clinic. Sarrell will start using its first scanner at its Anniston office by the end of the week, Parker said.
"We're trying to stay out front with technology to make the experience better for patients," he said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.