Digital Dentistry 101

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Dentistry has experienced an impressive amount of technological growth over the course of the last few decades. Going to the dentist, while still short of America’s favorite pastime, is now quicker and more painless than ever. Many of the new practices responsible for this shift fall under the umbrella of digital dentistry.

What Is Digital Dentistry?

Digital dentistry is the use of dental technology and devices that utilize digital or computer-controlled components. This stands in contrast to the mostly mechanical and/or electrical dentistry of the past (and still, to a lesser degree, the present). Because its definition is so broad, digital dentistry encompasses many different practices:

  • CAD/CAM and intraoral imaging
  • Computer-aided implants
  • Digital radiography (including cone beam computed tomography or CBCT)
  • Caries diagnosis
  • Lasers
  • Occlusion and TMJ analysis/diagnosis
  • Photography (extraoral and intraoral)
  • Patient record management and digital patient education
  • Shade matching

This is not even a complete list of digital dentistry practices, but it represents some of the most significant and most commonly performed.

Advantages of Digital Dentistry

For the most part, digital dentistry provides better efficiency, improved accuracy, and a higher predictability of outcomes in comparison to traditional mechanical/electrical methods. Digital dentistry typically reduces the number of appointments that a patient must go to; provides more accurate fittings; causes less sensitivity; removes the need for messy and uncomfortable impressions; and provides a more thorough, more accurate profile of the teeth.

However, the major limitation of digital dentistry is the high cost of adopting new technologies in their early stages. Most of these technologies have become more affordable over time, making them far more accessible today than when digital dentistry was in its infancy.

The Future of Digital Dentistry

Digital dentistry has already caused and will continue to cause several important shifts within the dental professions. For one, dental professionals now need a new set of skills in order to succeed in their use of the newest technologies. Dental schools and education programs must place a new focus on mastering digital equipment such as CAD/CAM technologies.

Additionally, new digital dentistry solutions require new materials. Modern dental technology brings an increased need for things like fabrics, surfaces, and colors, as well as multi-layer materials. In turn, more research on material applications and their biomechanical characterization will be necessary.

As a result of digital dentistry, the line between labs and milling centers is starting to fade; scanners, computer software, and milling machines have entered most dental laboratories. Even some clinics have adopted these new technologies. This means that more dentists are able to provide dental restorations to patients directly, without having to call on a lab or milling center. Dentists will have to compete with one another as more patients begin to expect all-in-one offices that provide a full range of dental, design, and milling services.

Lastly, the rules and regulations surrounding new digital dentistry technologies will likely become stricter over time, as typically happens with new and emerging fields. That means increased patient safety and quality control.

Digital dentistry is already changing the world of dentistry as we know it, and it will certainly continue to do so. Who knows what dental technologies will be capable of in another 30 years? Whatever it is, it will probably continue to make life easier for patients and dentists alike.