Digital Technology: An easy trend to predict is the expanded use of digital technology. What is not so easy to predict is how that technology will be used. For example, in 2004 everybody expected use of the Internet to grow but very few people predicted Facebook.
In dentistry, digital records, digital radiographs and digital photography already predominate. The next big change, already underway, will be digital impressions. Future technologies will include diagnostics and artificial intelligence.
Diagnostics: Digital high tech diagnosis is one of the most exciting trends in both dentistry and medicine, a trend that will revolutionize what it means to be a health care professional. We are very close to the sci-fi Tricorder used by Dr. McCoy in Star Trek. That is a device that will scan a person and detect physiologic changes that indicate disease.
Cloud-based diagnostics using a type of artificial intelligence will be used to analyze all kinds of scanned physiologic data including radiographs and photos. These diagnostic services will be able to detect minute physiological changes and compare them to a vast data base to determine if the change is pathological. The skills of a master diagnostician, that is the ability to detect physiological changes and compare these to remembered diseases, will be replaced by a computer.
Early versions of this include a caries detection device that detects changes in the crystalline structure of enamel that indicates decay, fracture or demineralization up to 5mm deep on any surface, even around existing restorations.
Next generation digital diagnostics (which are already available) will connect to a smart phone. The phone will be able to send the data to the cloud for analysis. That will eliminate the need for large and expensive purpose-built dental devices that do just one thing, like detect decay. The trend will be toward DIY diagnosis.
For example breath analysis devices are already being sold that can tell the user their blood alcohol level. It is a small step from there to a device that can detect diabetes or periodontal disease.
Sharing: The ability of software and hardware on different machines from different vendors to share and use data is called interoperability. The opposite of interoperability is proprietary. In the past almost all high tech dental systems have been closed proprietary systems. The three most obvious examples are patient records, radiographs and most recently digital impressions.
For example you could not take a radiograph with company A’s sensor and capture it with company B’s software then transfer it easily to a colleague using Company C’s system for analysis. If you use a specific device to capture an impression you are required to use that same company’s software, mill and Internet exchange. You cannot even transfer the most basic patient information such as name, address or date of birth from one management system to another.
These closed systems are good for the vendors but are not so good for the dentist or the patients. They limit what systems you can purchase; they inflate the costs and vastly increase the risk of high tech investments. If you buy the wrong system you will eventually have to scrap it and start over (think Betamax).
There is a developing trend to open dental systems. A few major companies are on board now—which is great—but for this trend to develop, dentists need to be on board as well. Do not purchase high tech systems that are not open.
Internet: The Internet is not new, but the creative ways we’re using it are. A great leap of understanding comes when a user recognizes it is not the computer that matters it is the network. The trend will be more use of the Internet for e-services, communication and eventually for cloud computing.
An e-service uses the digital information we gather as a byproduct of doing business with a computer; for example, the patient’s name, their cell phone number and their next appointment. Once this is gathered in a digital format it can easily be sent to a computer in the cloud the data can be put into a message and sent via text as an appointment reminder.
This simple e-service does this everyday with every appointment with no human picking up a phone or touching a keyboard.
E-services can also be used to check insurance eligibility, re-active inactive patients or take online payments. More and more sophisticated services are on the way.
Haves and Have Nots: Technology will become a differentiator. Dentists who have embraced technology and have installed and integrated systems that are working well within the office will have more success and will have more to sell when looking to retire.
Dentists who have avoided technology will find they are too far behind to catch up and will have little of value to sell at retirement.