Over the last decade, there have been incredible advances in dental technology. More recently, the increased availability of these tools has resulted in their adoption in many of our own practices and DSOs. Now, offices are turning to us as dental hygienists to take on more responsibility in the management and deployment of these tools.
As with nearly every other area of healthcare, it’s hard to overstate the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the adoption of new technology, speeding up what may have taken years of efforts to vet, train, and implement new technologies into a matter of weeks or, in some cases, days. At Sage Dental, where I work as the vice president of hygiene operations, when the pandemic hit, we ramped up the rollout of our teledentistry platform and completed in a weekend what we had expected would take months to complete.
While this influx of technology has undoubtedly affected the way we do our jobs, it has also provided us with better tools to care for patients. In many cases, it has made our work more efficient, impactful, and safe. Although there are certainly challenges to keeping up with various new technologies in the dental field, reminding ourselves of how they benefit both us and patients is critical to continued progress.
Modern technologies, including intraoral images collected through 3D scanners, have changed how oral health professionals can provide patient education. With a bit of training, hygienists can scan a full mouth in 3 to 5 minutes and then use the images to show fractured teeth, deteriorating restorations, calculus, and gingival inflammation. Patients can see areas of heavy occlusal wear and periodontal conditions that may be related to occlusal trauma. Images can also be used to evaluate crowding, overjet, and overbite.
This allows hygienists to provide more personalized instructions through videos, printouts, and verbal communication. Scans make it easier to discuss orthodontic treatments to achieve ideal occlusion and prevent trauma. Dental hygienists can focus on areas of concern and establish self-care regimens based on the needs of the patient. The intraoral scan can also be used when the patient returns for follow-up hygiene visits.
3D printers also have been a part of the broader healthcare toolkit for many years, but only recently have they been widely deployed by dental practices. Over time, these printers have become smaller and more affordable for practices to purchase. However, their use has remained limited compared to the potential they hold.
Currently, 3D printers are primarily used for more complex modeling needs including precision aligners and surgical implant templates. As more hygienists receive the necessary training to use both the device and the corresponding CAD software required to turn an impression into a 3D image, we will likely see them used in more dental applications, including crowns, bridges, inlays, onlays, and dentures.
One of the most important technological advances for hygienists is the dental perioscope. For patients, perioscopy not only can have enormous impacts on their long-term dental health through early prevention, but in some cases of advanced gum diseases, they can even forestall the need for surgery altogether.
There is no doubt that hygienist hand tools have their limits. The truth is that for even the most well-trained and experienced, identifying and removing all tartar buildup below the gumline just isn’t possible. Now, using these tiny fiber optic cameras, hygienists can play a more proactive role in preventive oral health care and ultimately improve outcomes through better diagnosis and treatment. The perioscope enables patients to see calculus buildup through their own eyes and can encourage better hygiene habits to prevent decay.
Practice Management Software
Hygienists’ use of practice management software varied greatly before COVID-19, but efforts to decrease patient exposure has pushed their adoption. The ability to review the most up-to-date patient records and view images chairside is more convenient for hygienists while greatly improving overall practice efficiency and patient satisfaction.
Teledentistry has also emerged as an innovative new way to check on patients while social distancing. Patients still need to be seen in person, of course. But these solutions can help identify emergencies that need to be addressed immediately versus those that can wait.
Even beyond the pandemic, I expect that teledentistry will continue to grow in popularity, as it offers a convenient way for patients to remain engaged in their dental care between in-person appointments. Teledentistry also allows hygienists to treat patients offsite in remote areas and work with a dentist remotely to provide diagnosis and aid with the care of the patient.
Even before COVID-19, a growing market of easy-to-use, dental-specific practice management systems meant hygienists were taking on more administrative tasks such as scheduling and billing. Many of the leading practice management software systems also enable hygienists to communicate directly with their patients. Although the expansion of practice management software has also meant the expansion of a hygienist’s duties, the benefits (especially during COVID-19) have greatly outweighed the disadvantages.
Finally, one area of technology still in the earliest stages of dental application is artificial intelligence (AI). AI holds the potential to impact the entire dental industry, from standardizing diagnosis to revolutionizing treatment. So far, we have just scratched the surface of AI’s enormous potential.
Some of the examples where AI is being used include image processing applications that identify patterns and track changes year-over-year and patient portals that allow patients to share their own photos of their teeth and flag issues to their care team. As these computer programs continue to get smarter, they will help standardize diagnosis and more accurately track and predict when intervention is needed to improve patient care.
Overall, while keeping up with the constant stream of new technology can feel challenging at times, much of this technology has incredible potential to improve hygiene by not only expanding the scope of the work but also elevating and expanding opportunities in the profession. These innovations are starting to be part of hygiene curriculums, but even we industry veterans can and should commit ourselves to learning how these tools can help us to improve patient care.
Ms. Mattingly is the vice president of hygiene operations at Sage Dental, responsible for overseeing operations and managing a team of more than a hundred hygienists across its 65 practices. She is dedicated to advancing the use of innovative technology in the dental field, including artificial intelligence and teledentistry. Mattingly also is the past president of the Georgia Dental Hygienists Association and a past delegate for the American Dental Hygiene Association.