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.
As always, I welcome your feedback. Leave a comment below or contact me directly.
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This is well written and spot on. The author has a good feel for the real transitional events within a dentist’s practice and mind as they move from analog to digital. It is often not easy for a dentist to move from what works to what is untried in his or her hands. It is not done on a whim and the escalating scheme presented is common. But I wonder why the electronic dental record isn’t mentioned because that is where digitization in the dental office really began. Absent the EHR there is no storage for the clinical digital history mentioned in the article. At least connected to a patient record there isn’t. If the author is as astute in the EHR field as he is in the clinical digital components it may be that the abject failure of EHR to keep up with the clinical technology gave him little to talk about. The % of fully paperless dental offices is still incredibly low and the advances in administrative and clinical help such as a pre-clinical workup assessment program are disappointing. Very nice article Mr. Dunn.
Thank you for your comment. Very good observation on the absence of EHR. I try to stick to writing about areas where I have some experience. In composing this article, my focus was primarily on digital technologies used directly in what I like to call the “treatment value chain”. And as you pointed out, EHR, while not a purely clinical category, crosses over into the clinical arena and is definitely part of this value chain. Alas, I have very little experience in the EHR space, and therefore left it out. As this is a growing category, I would welcome content on it for my site. So, please consider this an open invitation to provide guest content about the EHR field.
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