Digital Dentistry Isn’t the Future – It’s Now

No longer in the realm of science fiction, technological advances in dentistry continue to change the industry.

By Susan Richards

While it’s tempting to bemoan the absence of the flying cars that science fiction once predicted for our unimaginable future, one only needs to look around at today’s technological advances to appreciate how far we’ve come – hovering Hondas aside.

Developments in the healthcare field have saved and improved countless lives, and those in the dental profession have benefited greatly from the tech world as well. Digital dentistry is no longer just referring to the input of data, but a wide range of tools and software that are changing the way oral health is handled daily – in the chair, in the office, and even in the patient's home.

We’ll look at some of the most exciting innovations in the industry from the simple to the sci-fi, and what they could mean for dentists everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence

Putting aside the concerns of human-like computers going rogue as seen in the movies, artificial intelligence (AI) provides solutions in several ways for today’s dentists. Specifically engineered programs can help a doctor detect and diagnose problems by analyzing patient data, reading x-rays, and compiling information that would otherwise be handled by additional staff in other professions.

Although AI has already been successful at detecting caries and fractures, a recent study presented to the European Federation of Periodontology (EFP) showed exciting promise for identifying periodontal pathologies in bitewing radiographs.

By having another set of “eyes,” a dentist can provide a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan which will reinforce patient trust. With the current staffing challenges, AI can free up more team members and reduce chair time.

3D Printing

As scientists explore advances in fabricating organs and body parts using human cells, the unlimited potential of 3D printing can’t be overstated. The technology has inspired limitless possibilities and becomes more affordable and accessible in all industries every day.

By using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), dentists can print dental items in-house, including but not limited to:

  • Crowns
  • Impressions
  • Bridges and dentures
  • Implants
  • Retainers
  • Aligners
  • Dental splints

…all while the patient waits! In addition to eliminating the need to send an order out to a lab and waiting days or weeks, the immediacy can improve treatment plan acceptance and pay for itself in real-time.

Taking 3D to a whole new level is cone-beam computed tomography or CBCT. This device is able to scan teeth, bones, soft tissue, and nerve pathways to diagnose and plan dental treatments with more accuracy and knowledge. The CBCT equipment produces more radiation than a standard radiograph, but less than a CT scan, so installation would require more training and safety measures.

Intraoral Cameras & Scanners

Dental professionals are smiling for the cameras – the intraoral cameras (IOC) – that continue to expand upon their usefulness beyond social distance dentistry. These tools come in a range of capabilities and prices which make them valuable and accessible for:

  • Diagnostics
  • Remote patient care
  • Documentation
  • Visual patient education
  • Dental education

Intraoral scanners are improving the patient and dentist experience as well. A digital scan of the patient’s mouth provides all the information needed for restorative care or aligners and eliminates the need for uncomfortable, gag-inducing impressions.

Patient Care & Hygiene

Digital dentistry is also supporting patients and enhancing their oral health. The electric toothbrush has received an upgrade with smart technology that can tell the user if they’re brushing correctly. On the horizon, scientists are studying microrobots that could potentially automate daily dental hygiene habits. And in the chair, some dentists have begun providing virtual reality (VR) goggles as an effective distraction for anxious patients.

Concerns & Considerations

As with any scientific and technological advances, some factors have a downside or may require caution and diligence.

Utilizing more digital data in a practice can open up more opportunities for security risks. Be sure patient files and financial records are protected from cyber-attacks. Advise patients to be cautious with any dental tech that sells their information to a third party.

While certain tools like 3D printers and intraoral cameras are affordable enough for the smallest practice to take advantage of, more advanced printers or scanners like the CBCT have price tags that limit their availability. Additional training or certification may be required for new equipment and technology as well.

Dentists are finding strength in numbers and access to more digital resources by being part of a dental service organization (DSO) as well as group purchasing organizations (GPOs).

Because so much of dental care expenses are out of pocket, let’s hope that tech advances will continue to become more cost-effective to serve patients at all levels better. Accessible oral healthcare beats a flying car any day.


Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.

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