The Future of Dentistry: 3D Printing and Other Inventions
The future of dentistry is facing some big challenges. Can the industry overcome them and continue to offer affordable, effective dental treatment to patients?
Image from Niels Heidrenreich on Flickr.
It is funny to think that, thirty years ago, the right here and now seemed so far away that we thought there might be flying cars and trainers that can lace up on their own. We have now passed the iconic date immortalised in Back to the Future and while we might not have floating highways yet, we do manage to create some pretty cool inventions.
The dental industry is one area that comes fairly far down the list of when we think of innovation and future creations, but the reality is that teeth are at the forefront of medical science. No, really; medical researchers spend millions of pounds and laboratories full of scientists on investigating and updating dentistry techniques every year.
You might be asking yourself, is there really that much to learn about teeth? Won’t visiting the dentist always be a troublesome and frightening thing anyway, no matter what kind of methods are used? Well, you will be pleased to learn that a huge amount of this focus and attention goes to finding ways to deliver dental treatments in the quickest and most pain free way possible. And right now, we are on the cusp of a dental revolution.
Looking Ahead to the Future of Dentistry
With everything from stem cell regeneration to 3D printed teeth currently making waves in the world of dental science, it is fair to say that your dental appointments could start to look very different very soon. One of the things that researchers and scientists are really keen to develop is an alternative to the dental drill.
They understand that fear of this whirring, whizzing metal instrument can be so intense that it stops people from visiting the dentist altogether. If they do, it usually turns out to be a very stressful experience, because they are too afraid to relax. Even though patients know that most procedures are performed under anesthetic and, as such, are pain free, it does not stop them from grappling with a fear of the unknown.
This is precisely why dental science and dentistry innovation is so important. Take the rise of 3D printing as another example. Now that 3D technologies are allowing dentists to map out, design, and create bridgework and implants in a matter of hours, they are saving time, saving money, and saving resources on costly moulding techniques.
This article will take an in depth look at the future of digital dentistry. It will outline some of the most ground breaking innovations of the last twenty years and explore the benefits of integrating digital technology and the evolution of dental procedures.
Understanding the Term ‘Digital Dentistry’
There are lots of different ways to define ‘digital dentistry,’ so the term can be a little confusing. Essentially, it refers to any kind of dental technology, accessory, device, or development that features digital or computer controlled elements. So, anything from 3D printed dentures and implants to more precise innovations like the computer regulated delivery of anesthetics.
The following section lists a number of the most important areas of dental development. These are the tasks and duties that can be made more efficient and precise with the addition of digital resources. For the most part, these inventions and technologies are already being put into practice in dental surgeries. In some cases, (like laser dentistry), the technology is available, but the cost is currently preventing it from reaching a wider market.
Computer Aided Implant Dentistry: this includes the design and manufacturing of dental implants, bridgework, and other personalised pieces.
Digital Radiography: developments in radiography are allowing dentists to photograph teeth much more quickly and in a way that poses fewer risks than traditional x rays.
Laser Dentistry: lasers are the biggest thing to happen to the dental industry in decades, because they provide a way for dentists to remove decayed material without using a drill. This means that fillings can, potentially, be performed without any drilling at all.
Practice and Patient Records: this is a strand of digital dentistry that people tend to ignore, but patients benefit greatly when dental surgeries are able to manage records efficiently. It makes appointments run more smoothly and helps specialists keep an eye on underlying conditions.
Flawless Shade Matching: computer technology is helping dentists to make better shade matches for their patients, particularly when it comes to implants and bridgework. Before now, it was very difficult to manufacture dental pieces in the same shade as natural teeth, but digital programs can make incredibly close matches.
Watching the Dental Industry Change Slowly
In some ways, dental innovations revolutionise the industry. They make big promises about the future of treatments and they help dentists find ways to deliver procedures at a faster, cheaper rate for patients. On the other hand, they also have quite a sluggish impact. It must be understood that dentistry, like any industry, is based on a very competitive market and clinics are under pressure to make a profit.
The problem is that dentistry is a very small industry, particularly in terms of financial revenue, potential market growth, and external non-dental shareholders. It means that developments that would usually be integrated fairly quickly within larger industries, take some time for the dental industry to fully embrace. There is a relatively small amount of global interest, but a relatively large degree of financial support needed to make new technologies work.
For all of the reasons, it now takes (on average) around twenty five years for a new technology to be fully accepted and widely used. So, while inventions like laser dentistry and remineralization are poised to transform the industry, their progress may still be slow. They are expensive, cumbersome, and tricky to integrate into established dental routines.
This rather large estimate for adoption has led to claims that it is the dentistry industry that is actually moving too slowly, not the developments themselves. Yet, dental science remains at the forefront of some of the most cutting edge experiments and investigations. The aforementioned stem cell project has been hugely successful. Scientists can now grow an organic and natural tooth from stem cells, in the space where an old tooth has been lost.
The Many Benefits of Digital Dentistry
The two main aims of dental scientists are efficiency and precision. In other words, the priority is to make dental procedures faster and more accurate. It is also important that new inventions cause less pain than older ones and offer dental clinics some cost related benefits. In the case of 3D printing, all of these aims are fulfilled.
It is much cheaper and more efficient to 3D print a dental implant or bridgework piece. For a start, all of the components can be manufactured at the same time, as part of the same process. This means that only one manufacturing job has to be completed. Less materials are needed, fewer hours are required for the overall process, and a much superior colour, shape, and dimensional match can be made.
Now, dental scientists are working on ways to make 3D printed teeth that are entirely resistant to bacteria and infection. They are focusing on the use of different antibacterial materials, as a way to find the perfect replacement for natural teeth. This could be a ground breaking development for dental procedures, because there is currently no way to replace a lost tooth with organic material (the stem cell discoveries could change this).
So, if teeth are lost, their replacements need to be as responsive and as real as possible. This will prevent the remaining teeth from moving into the empty space and becoming misaligned. It will also significantly reduce the incidence of degenerative bone and tooth loss. Once a natural adult tooth is lost, as much as possible has to be done to help the mouth accept the replacement and stay healthy.
The Overarching Obstacle for Digital Dentistry
The biggest obstacle for the implementation of digital dentistry will always be cost. It costs surgeries and clinics a lot of money to update old technologies, particularly early on in their market lifespan. To put it simply, it often does not pay for surgeries to become ‘innovators’ unless they are top earners.
Even if a surgery does decide to embrace laser technology or a new method of filling cavities, its specialists will need to be fully trained in its use and this also costs a lot. Ultimately, more support from the government could likely help dentists to adopt new tools and resources faster. However, there continue to be some concerning conflicts standing in the way of industry progress and government guidelines.
The best example of this is the controversy over mercury amalgam fillings. While the FDA has now strongly stated its own concerns about their use, the government continues to disregard these calls for tighter restrictions. As campaigners clamour to condemn mercury fillings and the argument grows in prominence, the fact that a huge amount of private dentists have now shunned them is largely overlooked.
Should we be looking ahead to the future of the dental industry and digital dentistry, if arguments over the safety of something as basic as fillings remain? Or, should these conflicts actually push developments forward? After all, the faster that an organic alternative to artificial fillings can be found, the quicker mercury fillings can be eliminated. Fortunately, scientists in London have developed a way to fill cavities without the need for artificial materials.
Getting to Grips with EAER Technologies
According to its creators, Electrically Accelerated and Enhanced Remineralization (EAER) is an innovative new process that promises to eradicate the dental drill and the use of artificial fillings. It relies on tiny electrical currents (too small to be painful) that are passed through natural teeth. These currents stimulate the inherent regeneration capacities of the tooth and it begins to work in overdrive.
In its accelerated state, the tooth can repair and heal cavities. There is no need for any kind of artificial material, because the tooth is replacing the lost enamel with new enamel. It is, literally, healing itself. This is possible because human teeth have always had regenerative properties. The problem is that their pace cannot match the rate at which we expose our teeth to damage and decay.
So by speeding the process up, scientists have merely used a naturally occurring phenomena in a new and exciting way. Like 3D printing, EAER promises to transform the dental industry for patients, as well as dentists themselves, because it will inevitably make procedures cheaper to perform. And, if they are cheap to perform, they are cheap to buy. The lack of artificial material, as far as EAER goes, means that this kind of filling can be offered even in third world countries and underdeveloped locations.
With EAER fillings, the teeth are not just repaired, they are made stronger and whiter too. Plus, they do not have to be replaced every 7-12 years like standard composite fillings do. The only issue is the question of whether or not patients are likely to take fillings for granted, if they know that they will last a lifetime. Does this kind of dental development also need a fresh perspective on dental education to be a true success?
The Most Important Functions of Digital Dentistry
The following section will outline some of the ways that digital technologies have already changed the industry for the better.
Managing Practice and Patient Records
This is currently the most basic form of digital implementation and it has been embraced by the vast majority of clinics and surgeries. Like all modern industries, the dental industry has had to keep up with the need to digitalise records, but patients no longer want to use paper resources. They want to get updates about their surgeries on Facebook. They want to be emailed about appointments, so that they can respond in a matter of minutes.
Digitalisation is essential, because dentists can no longer spare the time to trawl through paper records. With digital databases, patient files can be accessed in seconds and edits made (and changed) as many times as needed. It has become the norm for dentists to use iPads and tablets for patient education. In the past, they were reduced to making sketches on paper.
These days, if a patient needs a visual guide to a procedure or needs to be taught about the correct way to brush or floss, the dentist can just bring up a video. It is just another example of how digital technologies are making the patient/dentist relationship easier. They actively reduce the gulf between the advice and recommendations of a specialist and their processing and acceptance by patients.
After the digitisation of records, dental surgeries need to look to the adoption of digital radiography. This imaging technique involves a much smaller dose of radiation, so it poses less risk to patient health. With a smaller dose, a specialist can think about giving a patient more than one radiographic scan, if necessary.
This is the direction that imaging techniques will always need to take. The main aim for researchers and scientists should always be to minimise the dose of radiation, while not compromising the quality of scans. Radiographic scanning is vital, because it allows dentists to diagnose conditions that are not visibly prominent.
We have already covered laser dentistry in some detail. We know that it represents a cutting edge development for the dental industry, but that it is still too costly for the majority of surgeries to adopt. Hopefully, this will change as the equipment gets cheaper to manufacture. And, unsurprisingly, 3D printing could be the way to achieve this.
The advent of 3D printing has had an impact on just about every manufacturing industry in existence. This is because the technology allows companies to restrict products to just one or two manufacturing processes. They no longer have to pay a number of different suppliers, vendors, or departments to handle different aspects of the job.
They can just create a 3D design, feed it into a compatible printer, and wait for the product to be completed. This might take a couple of days, but the process is still much faster than traditional manufacturing methods. So, it could, potentially, be used to make machines like those needed for laser dentistry. And if these can be made cheaper, they can be offered to patients at a cheaper rate too.
Laser dentistry holds a number of benefits for patients. Apart from the psychological advantage of not having to work with drills, lasers also help teeth to accept fillings more securely. They prepare the outside of the tooth much more efficiently, so the crown or filling placed over the top is likely to stay strong for longer. The future is bright for laser treatments, but the challenges associated with cost must be tackled first.
The Importance of Eliminating the Drill
It might sound strange to some that eradication of the dental drill is such a top priority. As has already been made clear, cost and availability are similarly essential – what makes the elimination of the dental drill such a worthy challenge? Well, a surprising amount of dental phobias and fears are related to the drill. Fear of having to sit still, while a dentist approaches with a drill, is top of the list for most phobic patients.
It is ironic, because drill based procedures ordinarily involve no pain at all. They feel strange – the vibrations can be felt by the patient – but they are not painful. The fear largely stems from an old fashioned anxiety about things like root canals and low quality fillings. In the 17th century, patients had to undergo dental procedures without anesthetic and, of course, many developed a great fear of visiting.
It is important to remember that concerns about drilling emerged at a time when the industry was extremely young. Dental treatments were very painful and dangerous for patients. It makes perfect sense to think that many grew phobic about attending appointments. These days, however, drilling is standard, very common, and nothing at all to worry about. It is something that dentists do every single day.
Despite this, lots of patients are scared and they do struggle to keep up with regular appointments. If this sounds like you, it could be time to think about conquering those dental drill demons. The longer that you go without a routine check-up or appointment, the more at risk your teeth become. They may develop (or have already developed) decay, cavities, or infections. All of these things need treatment, or they will progressively worsen.
Tips and Tricks for Conquering Dental Anxieties
Visiting the dentist is not really a choice, because oral and dental healthcare is essential. So, if you suffer from a fear of the dentist (whether it is based around drills, needles, or any other aspect of treatment), conquering this fear is not really an option either. The good news is that nobody is going to push you into doing anything that you are not comfortable with.
Ultimately, you are in charge of the health of your teeth. A dentist can (strongly) advise treatment, but it is your decision to go ahead. This means that you can take small steps, if you need to. No matter how poor a condition your teeth are in, it is always better to be taking small steps towards a regular dental healthcare routine than no steps at all.
Remember this when you are booking an appointment with the specialist. You are the boss and you make the rules. If you have a chat with your dentist about how you are feeling, they can take some time to discuss different options with you and decide how to approach any treatments that you might need. The dental industry is a caring profession; your dentist only wants to give your teeth the best possible treatment.
The first step is to get yourself inside a surgery or clinic. This can be a completely non-invasive consultation, if necessary. The important part is that you enter the surgery, sit in the chair, and talk to the dentist without panicking. Once you can do this, you know that you can do anything. Because visiting the dentist is nothing to fear. It might smell weird sometimes. It may even contain some gnarly looking equipment – but it has your best interests and your future at heart.