Responding to a pandemic: Development of the Carolina Dentistry Virtual Oral Health Care Helpline

J Am Dent Assoc. 2020 Nov;151(11):825-834. doi: 10.1016/j.adaj.2020.08.003.


Background: A virtual oral health care help line was established to provide consultation and triage for people with dental questions and concerns. Its goal during a pandemic was to keep patients from seeking unnecessary in-person care from emergency departments and urgent care clinics, especially when dental practices were closed or limited to providing essential urgent and emergency oral health care.

Methods: The Adams School of Dentistry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, developed the Carolina Dentistry Virtual Oral Health Care Helpline using a quality improvement framework with faculty and staff member feedback. The process included establishing infrastructure (phone, video, protocols, referrals, documentation), personnel (scheduling, training, calibration), and internal and external communication. The authors collected retrospective information for descriptive evaluation of the first month's operations.

Results: There were 337 telephone calls answered, of which 65 (19%) were administrative and 272 (81%) were related to dental concerns. Dental pain (54%) was the most prevalent reason for calling. Triage and Providers referred 107 of 175 callers (61%) to the school's urgent care center. Of the 79 callers who received teleconsultations from virtual providers, 33 (42%) did not require additional follow-up, and 7 (9%) needed a follow-up phone call. Overall, 4 people were referred to community clinics, and 4 were referred to the emergency department.

Conclusions: The Helpline was launched quickly and improved through quality improvement cycles, and it provided a needed community dental service. The process resolved some patient concerns without their seeking urgent or emergency care.

Practical implications: The pandemic has increased teledentistry practice. The authors describe establishing a dental school's virtual oral health Helpline, which provides a framework for dental practices seeking to use this patient communication modality.

Keywords: Teledentistry; access to care; dental education; disease outbreaks; pandemic; public health/community dentistry.

MeSH terms

  • Dentistry
  • Humans
  • Oral Health*
  • Pandemics*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Triage