These innovations are already making waves in the broader world-and someday soon, they’ll have huge implications for dentistry.
Each year, new technologies emerge in the dental world that change and improve existing workflows. While some innovations are iterative in nature-think software updates or slight tweaks geared toward improved or faster usability-some new solutions are so big that the promise for drastic change is felt immediately. Consider the first intraoral scanner; the accuracy and results may have left something to be desired, but the potential was obvious.
One of the remarkable things about dental technology is how much it borrows from other industries-CAD/CAM came from the manufacturing sector, and it just took some software tweaks to improve the accuracy. Material revolutions have been helped by breakthroughs in the health care sector, using regenerative materials originally developed for other uses in the body. Technologies that were invented without a thought to dentistry have been pulled over and changed dentistry forever.
With that in mind, here are some consumer and medical technologies currently on the market that have the capacity to shape the dental world for years to come. Some of these technologies have started to come into dentistry, while others are years away-but all of them may change what dentistry is.
If you’ve seen the amazing things ultrasound technology can do on the medical side, you know what to expect on the dental side. The goal with ultrasound solutions in dentistry is to provide a radiation-free option for imaging, along with detailed, 3D images of the teeth and jaw. Ultrasounds could offer an alternative to many 2D and 3D imaging solutions currently available.
But, of course, if you’ve seen an ultrasound lately, you know the biggest drawback: The image resolution isn’t very high. To get the kind of resolution and accuracy demanded by dentistry, ultrasounds have a long way to go.
And yet, new breakthroughs offer glimpses of what’s to come. The “3D” ultrasound technology that is commonly seen with fetal ultrasounds of pregnant women shows how far ultrasound imaging has come. If that kind of progress continues, it’s easy to imagine a world in which ultrasound imaging becomes a popular method for caries detection, digital impressions, imaging, and more.
3D printing has already taken the dental world by storm, particularly in the lab market, where it’s improved model-making, wax-ups, surgical guides, and more. But there is room to grow in the printing technology itself.
For starters, there’s Continuous Liquid Interface Production, a proprietary 3D printing technology owned by Carbon. This method of 3D printing is engineered to be around 100 times faster than current 3D printing speeds and also has the added benefit of looking like a science fiction movie. Just watch this video and imagine if that was a denture being created before your eyes.
Other 3D printing technologies are also drastically changing what dentists can do in terms of cost, speed, accuracy, or other factors. There may not be a more disruptive technology coming to dentistry than 3D printing, and what we’ve seen at this point is likely just a hint of what’s to come.
Earlier this year, the first robot designed for dental implant surgery was approved by the FDA. It’s designed to ensure accurate and precise oral surgery, specifically for implant cases and implant placements. And it’s also just a glimpse at how much robotics could change dentistry.
Currently, surgical robots are coming into their own in the medical field, and those innovations have obvious implications for dentistry. The intent of surgical robots is to allow more precise control over surgeries, ostensibly providing better care, less invasive procedures, and improved healing times. Some researchers are even experimenting with completely hands-free surgeries-though these will likely always be a minority since quick reactions and critical thinking are key to any surgery.
What could robotics bring to dentistry? Well, it’s obvious that dental surgery could eventually be robotized. But other areas could be helped by robotics as well. Imagine endo procedures that provide a doctor with precise controls via a robot arm. Perhaps robotics could eventually be used to create an entirely automated system for simple, single crowns. Or, micro-robots could be used for minimally invasive, in-office procedures that used to require a large team and a surgical operatory.
Chances are, you’ve seen something on the news about virtual reality (VR) over the last few years. While it’s been popular in sci-fi movies for decades, it’s only now coming into its own as a popular technology-when Facebook bought VR company Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, it was because Oculus’ technology was widely perceived as a game-changer. Now, three years later, Oculus has been joined by the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and other hybrid systems designed to bring VR into the living room. But while the potential for VR gaming might seem obvious, dentistry has a lot to learn from VR.
On the clinician side, VR training could revolutionize how dental professionals are educated, both in dental school and in continuing education courses. Instead of watching a PowerPoint presentation and a speaker at a lectern, clinicians could use a VR system to truly go “hands-on” under the instruction of an expert as they learn how to work with the latest dental solutions in a virtual world. Or, hygienists and other members of the dental team could use VR training to hone their skills and experiment with different ergonomic techniques without the presence of a real patient. It provides a virtual laboratory for any dental professional to test out the latest technology and techniques.
And, of course, patients could eventually use VR to completely escape the operatory during any procedure. Virtual reality is completely immersive and can help distract even the most skittish dental patient.
There’s plenty out there about artificial intelligence (and its trendy sister concept, machine learning) and how quickly it’s developing. But artificial intelligence (AI) is already a reality in many fields, and will likely impact dentistry in the coming years.
With the advent of digital dentistry, dental offices now collect a significant amount of data—from 3D images to patient files, to EHR, to intraoral scans, and so on. That data is helpful in the day-to-day job of the clinician and the dental team, but it’s even more useful in the virtual “hands” of AI. A system that was built to learn and develop its own intelligence can scan, analyze and make sense of the massive amounts of data. It can then suggest treatment options, predict problems and issues before they happen, and ensure any planned medication or procedures won’t interfere with other health concerns and more.
Artificial intelligence could also be used to eventually help with diagnoses and analysis of images-2D or 3D. Caries detection could become even more automatic, and learning computers could help dentists identify potential hazards when viewing diagnostic images and planning potential treatments.
We already covered 3D printing technology-but the printers are only as good as the materials they use. And for dentistry, the materials on the horizon are going to be game-changers.
In the manufacturing sector, printable ceramics have been available for several years. While right now the materials aren’t biocompatible, but it doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this technology could eventually lead to printable teeth that require a simple finish and polish before insertion. Additional materials could be used to print “gingiva” with the final goal of dentures that are completely 3D printed.
Another exciting area of research with implications for dentistry is in the area of biomaterials. Biomaterials are used to print final, organic prostheses that will be biocompatible and entirely accepted by the patient’s body. Some biomaterials use stem cells to create body parts, while others are complicated mixtures of existing organic material from non-human sources with human-made components. But the potential to create human tissue with these materials have endless possibilities for the dental market.