Your continuing care tool box

March 21, 2012

In this tough economy, the dental hygiene department is key to a practice’s success. Upgrades in the dental hygiene department are essential to maintain productivity, patient compliance/case acceptance and building long-term value in the practice.

In this tough economy, the dental hygiene department is key to a practice’s success. Upgrades in the dental hygiene department are essential to maintain productivity, patient compliance/case acceptance and building long-term value in the practice.

Technology provides the continuing care tools to increase the patients’ ability to co-diagnose their dental condition with the dentist and the hygienist. This saves patients from higher expenditures and increases their value and commitment to treatment. For example, getting patients to agree to treatments of adult fluoride is far less costly than a quadrant of composites.

So what are the innovations that should be in our hygiene technology tool chest? Let’s look at some of these tools that can benefit our patients and the practice.

Digital radiography: For years, with traditional radiographs we have mounted x-rays on the view box, out of the patient’s direct sight. The challenge with that process is the patient does not “see” what the dentist or hygienist sees. Digital radiography allows the clinician to instantly transmit to a monitor in the examination room. The video monitor allows the computer-generated image to be shifted, enlarged and highlighted for a more accurate diagnosis. Better yet, it allows for increased co-diagnosis with patients, which means a better understanding of their dental problem, which in turn creates increased follow-through with treatment.

Decay detection: There are now devices that allow the hygienist and doctor to scan the teeth to look for hidden decay, and then with treatment to stop the spread of disease before it destroys the tooth from within. This technique provides the patient with instant feedback regarding each tooth’s health. The main advantage for the patient? This takes care of decay while smaller, versus waiting until there is pain or a larger area of decay to treat.

Intraoral cameras: They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and the intraoral camera does the job wonderfully! This technology provides a visual tour of the dentition and shows the patient key areas that need treatment now or in the future. These advances allow patients to become part of their dental experience. Because most people are visual learners, it allows the dental hygienist to show a picture of a tooth with decay or an older amalgam breaking away from the tooth structure. This leads to increased case acceptance of restorative dentistry out of the hygiene chair.
Oral cancer screening lights: Oral cancer screening devices (lights) allow for a non-invasive test that can be compared with similar screening tools used for other cancers, such as the mammogram for breast cancer or the PSA test for prostate cancer.

Incorporating screening lights into the standard of care ensures patients receive a thorough and complete exam. Oral cancer is a growing problem among people 40 and older, especially among smokers, smokeless tobacco users and drinkers. However, according to the American Dental Association, more than 25% of those who are diagnosed with oral cancer, including those younger than 30, have no lifestyle risk factors and do not fall into these categories. This is important because abnormal cells in the mouth can progress to a pre-cancerous state with little warning, but early detection can minimize or eliminate the potentially disfiguring effects of oral cancer and possibly even save a patient’s life.

Antimicrobials: Integrating antimicrobials into dental hygiene therapies can significantly reduce a patient’s pocket depths, kill bacteria associated with periodontal disease and decrease bleeding during probing. This technology is so effective it can prevent more costly treatment for patients and encourage regular compliance with continuing care. The additional adjunct to treatment also can positively effect the hygiene department’s productivity.

Lasers: Lasers use light energy as their method of operation, resulting in a shortened and almost painless healing period. This technology allows the hygiene department to offer patients services that are faster, better and less intrusive. With laser periodontal treatment, many patients can undergo treatment without needing pain relief of any kind.

These benefits can be a motivator to patients who have delayed or not scheduled treatment because they are concerned about pain or time away from work for healing.
Internet/social media: The best way to keep up with modern patients is to communicate on their terms. Today, dental appointments can be made through a practice website, confirmed via e-mail, text or phone. E-mail messages are free (can’t beat that) and most patients check their inbox multiple times a day. Send patients birthday greetings, promote a new technology you’ve added, offer them a promotional discount or just tell them what kind of electric toothbrush you recommend. It’s an easy way to stay in contact with your patients non-intrusively on a consistent basis. 

Return on investment
Investing in these technologies and others is only the first step to creating success in challenging times. The practice’s culture (including training, integrating and marketing) must be set up so each new technology can provide a significant return on investment for the practice. The dental hygienist, dentist and team must develop benchmarks to ensure the investment is worthwhile and is creating positive results for both the patients and the practice. Benchmarks include a case acceptance monitor that tracks the amount of restorative case acceptance out of the hygiene chair, an increase in dental hygiene treatments such as radiographs, fluoride, antimicrobials, and a decrease in unfilled hygiene hours, to name a few.

Expanding your continuing care technology tool chest is the key to maintaining a competitive edge in these difficult times. So choose your enhancements, plan for success and enjoy the ride!