Sustainable Dentistry for the Savvy Dentist

Scientists can now link the record amount of climate disasters in recent years to a warming planet. Looking at how much oral healthcare relies on energy consumption and non-renewable resources, is sustainability dentistry even possible?

By Genni Burkhart

According to the 2022 annual report released by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) on January 10th, the past seven years were the hottest ever recorded. 2021 was the fifth warmest on record and had the highest number of U.S. climate disaster events (20) in a single year, costing $145 billion and nearly 700 lives.

If you're feeling a pit in your stomach over this, you're not alone. After all, a flooded, burned, or decimated community cannot support anything, let alone a dental practice.

How Does Dentistry Factor In?

When contemplating the environment and sustainability, one might not immediately think of dentistry. Understandable; however, dentistry relies heavily on energy consumption and non-renewable resources, creating a rather large impact on the environment and our ecosystem. When we consider sustainability, eco-friendly, or 'green' practices, the inherent factors in dentistry that have the most impact include:

  • Significant energy (electricity) consumption.
  • Large water demands.
  • High demand for biohazardous and single-use materials before, during, and after procedures. Covid-19 has exacerbated this issue.
  • The use of radiation for X-rays.
  • Use of hazardous waste materials such as lead and mercury.

Looking at the level and pace at which dentistry relies on these factors, sustainability does come into question. But where does one start? And what can feasibly be done to create a more sustainable and environmentally responsible way to practice dentistry?

Sustainability Isn't Just a Trend Anymore

The application of sustainability in dentistry can be rather overwhelming. Fortunately, much can be done that's beneficial to dental practices, their patients, and their bottom line.

It's important to point out that sustainability in oral healthcare isn't simply a trend that will fade away. On the contrary– patients are becoming increasingly more conscientious. Living a healthy lifestyle is a driving factor in not only how, but where patients are spending their money. Sustainability is gaining momentum– from healthcare and transportation to personal accountability and consumer spending.

New Building? Look for the LEED Rating

When it comes to the actual building, new (or relocating) practices can look for buildings that use natural materials, sourced locally. This is called green building.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), developed by the US Green Building Council (USBC), created the LEED rating system for building construction that utilizes nationally accepted benchmarks for design, construction, and operation. LEED ratings reflect a "greater sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality."

Having LEED approval for your practice also provides another opportunity to set your practice apart from the competition. Perhaps your building has a LEED rating–do you know what it is?

Office Management

These tips are perhaps the easiest to implement and might already be in place.

  • When the computer isn't in use, shut it down or put it in standby mode. This consumes up to 70% less electricity.
  • Use energy-efficient lighting such as LED bulbs. They're easier on the eyes and pocketbook.
  • Consider going paperless. This might include the use of new software but is seen by most practices who've done it as well worth the investment.
  • Send patient communications via SMS message and e-mail instead of paper reminders, statements, and postcard communications in the mail.

Dental Technology

Digital X-rays expose patients to 70 to 90% less radiation than traditional X-rays. Digital X-rays generate less paper, plastic, and lead waste. They don't require discarding empty film packets and save developer and fixer that can end up in water supplies.

Other dental technology that supports sustainability includes:

  • CAD/CAM systems.
  • Team sterilizers eliminating the use of chemicals.
  • Fully digital patient charting, scheduling, and billing.
  • Digital marketing.
  • Use of oil-free compressors.
  • Incorporating teledentistry into your practice.

The 4 R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink

Reduce

  • When it comes to the consumption of resources, consider everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) to instruments, and to the amount of energy needed to run your dental practice. PPE and many single-use protective items are considered high-need items right now, so look at the consumption of other resources such as electricity, natural gas, product usage, and water.
  • Going digital in as many areas as possible is a great way to reduce energy needs and save money in the long run. Updating to digital applications will appeal to more customers and save valuable time for staff.

Reuse

  • Not to be confused with recycling, reuse is to use something multiple times instead of once and done. It's also cost-effective to invest in reusable products over single-use items, such as stainless-steel impression trays and suction tips.
  • Look for items in your practice that can be reused, such as paper or cloth products, and replace them with washable, sterilizable items.

Recycle

Rethink

  • This involves the mindset of your entire staff altering how things are done, gaining the same (perhaps better) result but through sustainable methods.
  • A great example of this is highlighted by Dr. Brett Duane, a specialist in dental public health and healthcare sustainability, who's written numerous articles on this issue. An article he published in the British Dental Journal regarding sustainability in dentistry involves travel to and from dental offices. Recommendations in this article include reducing appointment times by combining visits for patients in the same family, combining operative procedures and reducing appointments based on patient risk, using telemedicine and teleconferencing for eligible patients, and encouraging cycle to work or carpooling for staff members willing and able to do so.

In Conclusion

We might be a little tongue-in-cheek by saying sustainability is for the savvy dentist, when in truth, the responsibility, as well as the consequences, belong to all of us.

As we stated in an article from a previous issue of the Incisor, many of the latest innovations in dental technology are making sustainability easier and more feasible for dentists. Mindset is important. Meaningful change takes time–but it can be done. With an insightful view, we see that dental patients are becoming increasingly savvier, and they're attracted to practices that are seen as innovative, responsible members of their community. Being environmentally responsible is to be innovative, and looking at it as an opportunity for growth can provide benefits that go well beyond your practice.

For more information on incorporating sustainability in your practice follow the purposefully abundant links in this article, or visit the ADA, the Eco-Dentistry Association, or the World Dental Federation.

Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the idyllic western shores of the Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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