Integrating Technology into the Dental Operatory
Avoid the pitfalls of lost potential by optimizing connections between operatory equipment and tools.
The term “technology integration” has become popular in the dental vernacular. But do any two people mean the same thing when they use this term? In order to improve patient outcomes, optimize the patient experience, and increase the efficiency, speed, and ergonomics in their delivery of care, dentists must carefully consider how they invest in new technology and equipment and incorporate it into their practice. But true technology integration goes beyond just making the equipment part of the daily routine; it means physically and electronically integrating tools in a way that helps them fulfill their potential (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
Proper technology integration can help eliminate three key pain points for the dental team. The first is a literal one: Tools that are not ergonomically integrated can result in physical pain for the practitioner, and are simply not sustainable for the long term. Second, technology should be incorporated in such a way that team members do not have to inconvenience themselves to retrieve it. Finally, proper technology integration can help prevent financial pain. When tools are not incorporated in a way that allows them to be used quickly and conveniently, they can often become a “coat rack” collecting dust in the corner. In fact, it is said that if it takes more than 7 seconds for a dentist to access technology, it will not be incorporated into regular use. This prevents the dentist from realizing the return on investment he hoped for when the technology was purchased.
The Three Levels of Technology Integration
To avoid these pain points, dentists should understand the numerous integration options available to them for ancillary devices (Table). It can be helpful to remember these options in three categories: non-integration, accommodation, and true integration.
The non-integration category refers to technology that is kept on mobile carts and tabletops. Often, mobile carts are used with the earliest form of a technology. For example, the first intraoral camera systems were delivered on a mobile cart. Lasers, air abrasion, digital impression devices, and chairside CAD/CAM technologies have also been used via this mode to get devices from operatory to operatory. Use of a mobile cart allows early adopters to try a product in multiple operatories with a rapid learning curve and payback. It can also make technology purchases more feasible for the practice, because instead of having to purchase a device for each operatory, one device can be transported within the practice as needed.
In addition to devices that are used with mobile carts, many technology devices are offered as a stand-alone piece of equipment that typically sits on the countertop or is stored in a drawer. These devices are plugged into power outlets also located on the dental furniture module. Like mobile cart devices, many new technologies are first available in a tabletop version. As they become broadly accepted, users can opt for a higher level of integration to gain the associated efficiencies and other benefits. Tabletop technologies are slightly more accessible than mobile carts, as they can remain in one location and often do not require the assistant to depart from the chairside. (If necessary, they also can also be moved from treatment room to treatment room.) However, limiting factors for this level of integration include cord management, tubing, cleaning and asepsis, the need for separate controllers, and exposure to patient view.
The accommodation category encompasses devices that can be attached to the handpiece control head of the delivery system, but are not integrated into the communication system and devices that are affixed to the dental chair or dental furniture, but not the control head of the delivery system. Attachment of devices to the control head is most often seen in “bolt-on” kits that are installed by a service technician to equipment already in use. While this type of accommodation offers the advantages of nearby controls and overall proximity to the delivery system, it does not allow the operation of the device from a universal touch pad or user interface. Different independent user interface controls and lack of tie-in to the delivery system software can limit integration efficiencies.
Similarly, when a device is affixed to the dental chair but not the control head of the delivery system, efficiencies are also limited. While this practice certainly makes the device more accessible than a mobile cart, it is operated as a separate and independent ancillary device from the dental chair, unit, and light. Duplication of controls, cords, and wires can further detract from efficiency, and can also be less presentable to patients.
At the highest level of integration, true integration, technology is built into the handpiece control head of the delivery system. This is considered the “tightest” relationship between the technology and ease of access and use for the dentist. True integration uses the delivery system’s common air, water, and electrical utilities, which minimizes the cost and complexity of duplicating the handpiece holder for ideal proximity to the oral cavity. Tying into the delivery system’s software and communication system allows the technology to function in concert with a universal touch pad that also operates chair functionality, handpieces, and all ancillary devices, providing simple and consistent controls. This level of integration also enables “device intelligence,” the ability for the touchpad to know the device in use and display the relevant data and controls.
Examples of devices that can be integrated into the delivery system are intraoral cameras, electric motors for rotary endodontics with auto-forward/reverse and torque control, piezo- or magnetostrictive scalers, tooth dryers, curing lights, air motors, and handpieces. Another advantage to this level of integration is the ability of the dental equipment manufacturer to connect the ancillary device to a single rheostat foot control if needed for device activation. This reduces the amount of clutter on the floor of the operatory.
True integration allows the technology device to work in concert with the delivery system, patient chair, operatory light, and all the dynamic instruments on the control head via the universal control of the touch pad, which is also mounted on the delivery system. Importantly this level of integration can help instill confidence in sometimes-nervous patients.
Considering Your Options
By understanding the levels of technology integration, practitioners can further research their various options, as well as consider the potential applications and benefits in their practice. When dentists know how their expectations will match the reality of a device’s use in practice, they can better avoid the pitfalls of technology underuse, misuse, and lost potential—helping maximize their efficiency and ROI.
1. Benjamin SD. Think before you treat: Thoughts for the successful implementation of lasers into practice. Inside Dentistry. 2011;7(9):86-87.
About the Author
Vice President, Product Marketing