The term “digital dentistry” has gained much popularity during the last several years. Its use now is ubiquitous. However, the concept of “digitizing” a dental practice means different things to different people. And there are no “incorrect” ways to convert a dental practice to digital dentistry. Digital dentistry can be thought of as a spectrum, along which various dental procedures and workflows are transformed from using traditional methods to incorporating digital technologies. Let’s take a look at three major segments along this digital dentistry spectrum.
Many dental practices start their journey on the digital dentistry spectrum with converting much of their diagnostic procedures from analog to digital technologies. This is usually accomplished by incorporating digital imaging sensors and digital X-ray technology to replace conventional film-based products and procedures. Complementary technologies in this segment of the spectrum usually include intra-oral cameras, various digital caries detection devices, and, of course, computers in operatories. In this segment, restorative and surgical procedures are often still performed with conventional workflows.
The next step is to begin to incorporate digital technology to improve restorative procedures. This segment can be thought of as a mid-point along the digital dentistry segment, whereby dental practices become “semi-digital” in many of their procedures. In addition to some (or all) of the diagnostic technologies mentioned above, dental practices in this segment add some form of 3D intra-oral tissue scanner to convert from traditional impressions to digital impressions for improving their restorative workflows. Using the digital impression, they can send files instead of physical impressions to their lab(s) for final processing of restorations. Opting for 3D digital imaging equipment as well as cloud-based collaboration and communication platforms can also be components of this part of the spectrum.
At the far end of the spectrum is the “fully digital” dental practice. These practices completely embrace digital technology and workflows to enhance nearly all diagnostic, restorative, and surgical procedures. In addition to the technologies listed previously, in this end of the spectrum it is common for practices to incorporate restoration design software and in-office fabrication (e.g., milling machines) for creating many restorations in the practice. Three dimensional Cone-Beam Computed Tomography (CBCT) scanners and 3D treatment planning software are incorporated to diagnose and plan implant surgeries and implant supported tooth replacement. Combining the data from the intra-oral tissue scanner and the CBCT bone scans allow for the accurate planning of implant surgery, precise manufacture of a surgical guide to aid in surgery, and even fabrication of the provisional implant restoration before surgery has commenced. In this part of the spectrum, almost all procedures are performed with the assistance of digital technologies to increase efficiency, improve accuracy, and provide a more comfortable patient experience.
While there is no “right or wrong” way to incorporate digital dentistry technologies into the dental practice, one thing is certain. Digital Dentistry is the here and now, not some unrealized vision for the future. In other words, the digital dentistry ship has set sail. Whether starting at the beginning of the spectrum or embracing it fully, it is time to jump aboard. Digital Dentistry technologies and workflows will continue to evolve. It is an exciting time, and no one wants to be left standing on the dock.
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