Moore’s Law tells us that computing power doubles every one or two years, but this relationship isn’t just true of computers, it also relates to technological advances and societal change.
If there’s one industry where new technology has had a remarkable impact it’s dentistry.
You might not realize it, but thanks to new dental technology, we are able to enjoy lower costs and greater access to the dental care we need. We are, for instance, fast approaching a period in time where the elderly don’t have to worry about wearing dentures. I.e. you don’t have to worry about losing all of your teeth anymore!
New dental technology also provides us a window into the healthcare industry as a whole, and how the same services can now be provided faster, more accurately, and more cheaply.
Let’s get down to the brass tacks, how exactly will new automation, computers, and machinery help you?
Worried about human error? Let a machine handle your dental implant surgery
Dental implants are a growing market within the dental industry, in large part because of their inherent superiority over alternative tooth replacement procedures.
Bottom line: they last longer, they look better, and they’re better for your health than partial dentures or dental bridges.
Implants are the new go-to treatment for most people who lose a tooth to damage, decay, or for whatever reason.
But, the procedure is not cheap. It, in fact, can get very expensive, very quickly, depending on the number of teeth you need to replace and where these teeth are located.
Altogether, a single implant with a single crown might cost as much as $3,000–4,000.
First, at that price, you want to make sure the implant works. As it stands, existing implant technology — which has gone through quite a revolution on its own — has allowed for survival rates as high as 91% over a 15 year period, depending on where the implant is placed and the patient’s oral health habits.
Second, one wonders whether that price will ever go down in the near future.
Thanks to new technologies recently tested in China, it just might.
Earlier this year, a robot placed the first dental implant on its own in history. There were, of course, human staff on watch, but it was the robot that completed the surgery from start to finish. Isn’t that crazy?
What prompted this? A shortage of qualified dentists and to cut back on human error.
What are the implications? If the process can be automated, the cost of placing a dental implant comes down the cost of the machine divided over the number of patients it can service. Machines have always been known to do things more inexpensively — and oftentimes better — than humans, which means that if this and related technologies become mass produced and widely implemented, we can expect procedures like dental implants go down in price considerably.
Cheaper dental implants are a very good thing. It means more people can have access to the best treatments.
How 3D printing will bring the best dental treatments to the masses
I remember when my mom first took me to my orthodontist to discuss braces. At the time, Invisalign and similar procedures were relatively new and they were highly expensive, much more so than they are currently even.
Suffice to say, Invisalign was out of the question.
Of course, Invisalign is more comfortable, it can take less time, and it’s obvious why most people prefer it.
What’s interesting about Invisalign, and similar aligner technologies is that they are made with future cost-cutting in mind. Maybe not intentionally, but allow me to explain.
When you first start the Invisalign procedure your dentist will use a machine to take a full scan of your mouth. This replaces those uncomfortably cold molds they used to fill your mouth with.
Once they have this scan, they can send it off to a lab that will use it to manufacture a pair of aligners that are custom tailored to you.
Sounds expensive, right? Imagine having to manufacture entirely customized aligners. You can’t mass produce that using old technology.
With 3D printing, however, they can take a scan, design the aligner using highly automated computer software, and mass produces individualized plastic Invisalign trays.
This is HUGE
3D printing drastically reduces production costs, meaning that as more dentists provide the service and as the cost of the machinery is spread out to more patients, the cost of the treatment will fall.
Invisalign, anyways, is just the start. New 3D printers can print metal objects, as well, implying that the range of tools that can be cheaply made is growing and expanding, and it will bring down costs across the board.
Avoiding the case of ignored cavities or cavities that don’t exist
Cavities and how to fix them has been an issue in dentistry that has been constantly improving over the years, and it’s illustrated by transitions like the move from amalgam to porcelain to avoid the negative side effects of metal in the body.
Despite being, perhaps, one of the most basic parts of the dental routine — most of us get cavities and most of us want them removed (most of us don’t want to lose teeth, after all) —, they’re also one of the most common procedures you hear about when talking about human error.
It makes sense. The more the procedure is done, the more bad cases you’re going to get.
What if that rate of error could be reduced even more, though?
As it turns out, thanks to new technologies, now dentists can. Different technologies exist, but one worth pointing out is Kavo’s DIAGNOdent pen, which is a device that scans your teeth and finds dental caries, or cavities.
No longer does the dentist need to manually check tooth by tooth. No longer do they need to take expensive x-rays.
Instead, with tools like these they can replace, or at least supplement, many of the old techniques, and still provide more accurate results that will reduce the scope of error.
Again, resolving tooth decay is one of the most common dental treatments.
This technology directly impacts a procedure that almost all people inevitably face. It’s something that will immediately and drastically improve patient experiences.
How new dental technologies have already improved our lives
DIAGNOdent is not the only technology available now that immediately improves standards for all patients.
Let’s come back to dental implants, which are at the forefront of technology and so provide a great study on how these automatons are impacting our lives right now.
Two new devices that are worth discussing are i-CAT and X-Guide, which are but two examples, but fascinating because of what they can do for the patient and what they promise for the future.
An i-CAT machine takes 2D and 3D X-rays, exposing you, the patient, to a drastically lower dose of radiation and minimizing error during the process. To you, that means taking x-rays has become much less uncomfortable, but it also means that the procedure is likely to become cheaper.
In fact, it’s common for doctors who have these technologies to provide x-rays for free, as part of a larger package, and that’s thanks to the fact that less human work means lower costs the practice has to cover so they can offer you the service at a much lower price.
The X-Guide machine performs a similar overall function. Going beyond the x-ray, the X-Guide creates an incredibly precise model of your oral anatomy. Using the rendering, the doctor and the technology can more precisely determine where the implant should be placed to maximize the likelihood of success.
I asked Amanda M. Sheehan, a dental implant specialist in Waterford, MI and a faculty member at the Misch International Implant Institute — one of the most renown continuing education services for implant dentists —, how tools like i-CAT and X-Guide have changed the game for the patient. She said,
3D dental imaging has had a huge impact. This technology gives the most accurate representation of our patients’ anatomy. This allows me to more predictably and safely treat my patients for all types of dental procedures. I can actually digitally place their implants on a 3D image of their jaw before we ever start surgery. 3D imaging has allowed my surgeries to be much safer for my patients. Patients love it because this decreases their time for surgery and it gives them the best results. 3D dental imaging is a must for anyone considering dental implant surgery.
What does this precision mean? With the X-Guide, a dentist can now more accurately determine the position, placement, and angle of the implant. That means a faster, more successful treatment for you, but also lower costs down the road as providing this precision becomes more inexpensive.
And, as much as dentistry is never at the front of our minds when we think of expenses, the truth is that it’s one of the main cost factors that we deal with.
The cost of a treatment can determine whether we get it at all, and sometimes we put up with oral health problems because we can’t afford the solution.
Technologies like these, and the others discussed here, will be the source of immensely impressive gains for patients across the world. There’s no better use of technology than to provide better, cheaper, and more widely available healthcare.