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How technology became a necessity in dentistry

June 1, 2021
Teams that embrace technology as a “need to have” will benefit themselves, their practices, and their patients. Ann-Marie DePalma, MEd, RDH, explains how.

Technology surrounds us every day. As the world has been turned upside down due to the pandemic with social distancing and remote working and learning, technology has taken a greater role in our everyday lives. Technology within dentistry has taken the same course. What was previously thought of as “nice to have” is now considered “need to have.” From easily accessible software, to teledentistry, to patient engagement programs and in-office technology, the reliance on technology within the dental profession has grown by leaps and bounds within the last year. This article will review some of the ways technology has moved into the world of “need to have” in the dental practice.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and practices were forced to shut down for emergency-only patients, dental teams became aware of the need for virtual accessibility to the practice. Teams were challenged to maintain HIPAA protocols while operating remotely—from making sure practice billing was regularly delivered to insurance providers and/or patients to providing virtual examinations prior to patients being seen in the practice.

Practices that use server-based practice management software needed to rely on third-party remote-access products that may or may not provide proper security, while practices that utilize cloud-based software may have experienced lags or the inability to access radiographs and other clinical aspects.

Software vendors have acknowledged these difficulties, and some have found a way to disrupt the status quo. For example, in addition to Eaglesoft, Patterson Dental developed Fuse, a browser-based software that is designed to solve problems that dental teams often encounter with both cloud- and server-based practice management programs. With intuitive workflow for today’s practices via smart screens and easily understandable dashboards, Fuse makes real-world data from a variety of devices accessible to the dental team in real time.

Beyond practice management software technology, imaging software and products have grown incrementally. Intraoral cameras can be used for synchronous or asynchronous virtual patient visits, and patient engagement programs, such as OperaDDS or RevenueWell, offer teledentistry via a patient’s computer or phone. Dentistry has expanded its imaging capabilities to greater heights with digital sensors, such as Dentsply Sirona’s AE sensors or their combination 2D/3D units Axeos and Orthophos. More detail means better diagnostics, better patient acceptance, and better treatment outcomes for patients and clinicians.

Beyond simple imaging, there is a movement within dentistry to combine artificial intelligence (AI) with imaging to improve overall diagnostic possibilities. Still in its infancy, the use of AI in dentistry has unlimited potential. In addition to their digital impressions and scanning capabilities, some of the CAD/CAM devices are becoming caries detection units as well.

Patients want and expect their health-care providers to engage with them virtually during convenient times and using methods that work for them. Patients can be reminded of upcoming appointments via phone, text, or email, depending on their personal preferences.

As we move through the pandemic and patients return to dental practices, they are looking for touchless ways to communicate and pay for treatment. Vendors such as Revenue-Well, OperaDDS, and Solutionreach allow teams to send online forms to patients prior to their appointments and, in some cases, have them automatically uploaded into the practice’s software. Whether it’s a COVID-19 screening form, patient medical history, patient demographic and insurance information, or practice-specific forms, patients can complete these prior to their visits and teams can have the information readily available for discussion.

In the case of dental insurance, the administrative team can query the patient’s insurance provider for benefits so that the clinical team has access to that information while the patient is in the office for treatment. Third-party payment options allow for touchless payments from patients, thereby increasing the practice’s cash flow.

With cash flow in mind, sending electronic insurance claims improves the practice’s bottom line. Sending claims through the mail averages a return on payment in approximately four to six weeks, while the turnaround time for electronic claims processing—from submission to payment—takes just days.

Another enhancement to improve the practice’s cash flow is the capability of adding electronic attachments. This decreases the amount of time pretreatment estimates are awaiting insurance approval, which increases patient case acceptance. Utilizing real-time eligibility allows the dental team to give patients an accurate estimation of insurance benefit coverage for procedures at the time of treatment presentation. Companies such as Change Healthcare offer a variety of opportunities to help practices increase reimbursements from third-party payers, which is so important in today’s difficult economic environment.

Virtual reality (VR) is expanding the enjoyment of everyday life, especially during a time when normal day-to-day activities are limited. Utilizing VR in dentistry to help calm anxious patients and/or relieve pain has also experienced a growth in development and use. OperaVR can provide the patient with a relaxing experience while in the dental chair.

Many states, in response to the opioid crisis, have adopted legislation to require medical and dental clinicians who prescribe controlled substances to send these prescriptions electronically to pharmacies. No longer will controlled substances be filled from a paper prescription on specialized prescription paper; these substances must now be sent to the pharmacy electronically. Patients have been accustomed to their medical providers sending any prescription, controlled or noncontrolled, to their pharmacy electronically, so similar practices in dentistry are a natural progression. Whether or not a practice chooses to prescribe controlled substances, patients are demanding that dental teams send their prescriptions electronically in order to save time and create a touchless environment. Programs such as DoseSpot or Clinical Exchange can provide dental practices with electronic prescriptions.

With dental practices looking to improve overall statistics, productivity, and profitability, dental teams rely on statistical data to improve practice functionality. From scheduling overdue treatments to controlling accounts receivable, companies such as Dental Intel can provide information about the practice’s overall business health.

As technology evolves within our personal lives, so has technology within the dental practice. One favorable outcome of the pandemic—if there is such a thing—is that technology enables dental professionals to provide better care and information to patients at whatever point they are in treatment. Teams that embrace technology as a “need to have” will benefit themselves, their practices, and their patients. As hygienists, we need to be advocating for the addition of technology to help our patients and our practices grow within this rapidly evolving arena. 

Author’s note: The author did not receive any compensation for any products mentioned in this article.

ANN-MARIE DEPALMA, MEd, RDH, CDA, FAADH, FADIA, is a technology advisor for Patterson Dental, a writer for RDH magazine, and an author in dental hygiene textbooks. She is the 2017 MCPHS Esther Wilkins Distinguished Alumni recipient. She is a fellow of the Association of Dental Implant Auxiliaries and American Academy of Dental Hygiene, a continuous member of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association, and an active member of the Massachusetts Dental Hygiene Association.