Dec 31, 2011Science and Technology
Dentistry advances with 3D scanners, iPads and plasma brushes

The majority of people are afraid of the dentist. In fact, about 10 percent of the population has enough anxiety and fear of the dentist to constitute calling it dental phobia [The prevalence of dental fear and avoidance: a recent survey study]. This fear can be understandable. The mouth is a sensitive area, and the whirling drills and sharp metal pokers can bring to mind the medieval world of medicine. It is scary and, through no fault of the dentist, sometimes painful.


On top of it all, it is expensive. Slate magazine printed a story that claimed in 2007 Americans spent 95.2 billion dollars in dental care, and 44.2 percent of dental bills were paid out-of-pocket [The oral cost spiral]. These are daunting numbers, especially for something that scares so many. However, do not give up on your dentist yet. The future of dentistry looks cheaper and more pain-free with 3-D scanners, iPads and plasma brushes.


Molds for bridges, crowns or new teeth are one of the more annoying reasons to go to the dentist. It is not painful, but I do not enjoy having a goo-ish paste shoved in my mouth. This is where new 3-D scanner technology comes into play. This new technology allows dentists to create quick and accurate 3-D renderings of teeth. It is also as simple to use as having the patient open his or her mouth and having the dentist point the small portable scanner at the area in question [Dentistry Goes High Tech With 3D Technology].  


After the scan, the dental technician, the people responsible for making the crowns and new teeth, can receive the 3-D rendering within minutes. This helps dentists cut costs by reducing the shipping price of molds and reducing the material needed to make molds. Also, since the technology gives the dental technicians a more detailed view of the mouth, new teeth and crowns should be better fitted for the patient’s mouth. This translates into a quicker, pain free fitting for the patient.


Of course, having superior dental equipment is not the only way to reduce costs; paperwork and office management are an ideal target for trimming expenditures. Paperwork alone has cost North Carolina enough for the state to pass a bill that requires school districts to limit paper use [School and Teacher Paperwork Reduction Act]. The school districts have responded by buying iPads. Likewise, now dentists are following that same trend by reducing such costs with iPad acquisitions. The NPD Group's third quarter SMB Technology Report found that 76 percent of small and medium dentists’ offices plan to spend up to $6000 on iPads, as well as similar tablets, within the next 12 months [Survey: Medical offices will spend thousands on iPads, other tablets, next year].


This would allow for the full digitization of patient records and reduce the amount of time required to file and sort through the stacks and stacks of papers often associated with medical care. And who knows, iPhones have recently been used to help doctors diagnose a stroke patient [Strokes diagnosed via iPhone FaceTime], so maybe the iPhones will also be used to provide patients with access to dental specialists that are too far away for rural patients.


All this is interesting, but most patients will never need a new tooth and will never see the workload reduction from an iPad. This is because 75 percent of the work done by dentists is related to cavities and fillings. Hence, the biggest impact on dentistry is likely to come from the new plasma brush developed as a replacement for drills by researchers at the University of Missouri ["Painless" Plasma Brush Is Becoming Reality in Dentistry, MU Engineers Say]. The plasma brush works by bombarding the tooth with charged ions that smash into bacteria, thereby killing them.


The plasma brush is able to clean a cavity within 30 seconds, and it leaves the cavity area better suited to forming bonds with the filling agent, so a filling from the plasma brush should have a longer lifespan than a regular filling. Also, the brush is completely painless. You can touch it to your finger, and all you will feel is rushing air. If you try to do the same trick with a running drill, you will need a trip the hospital. Therefore, the plasma brush should make trips to the dentist for cavities a quick, long-lasting and painless affair; these very results should also help reduce the costs of getting a cavity filled.


So, when will the dentist’s office of the future be available? Well, the plasma brush is expected to be available by 2013. Patients should also being seeing iPads in many dentists’ offices by 2013. As for the 3-D scanner, it is currently available, but introduction costs will probably keep many dentists away from the machine for a few years. However, in the next 2 to 5 years, we should see a drastic change in the dentistry world, and a huge shift in how people perceive going to the dentist.

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