In a society increasingly accustomed to instant gratification, dentistry often finds itself falling short of meeting patients’ expectations. Patients will come in with hopes of ‘quick-fixes’ and immediate solutions to their problems, but leave disappointed with the news that their procedure will take weeks to complete.

Yet, with the introduction of new and disruptive technologies to the field, dentists move closer and closer to a world of ‘one-stop dentistry’, where prostheses that once took weeks to process, fit and create, can now be completed from start to finish in a couple of hours- thus needing only one appointment.

Let’s delve into but a few of the advancements within modern day dentistry…

1.    Digital impressions:

Dental impressions are the first step to many procedures, such as making dentures, crowns and braces, and are traditionally taken using a dental putty that patients have to bite down on. Digital impressions, however, use a hand-held laser or LED light scanner which is connected to a computer to create a virtual model of the teeth and gums. This image is then processed by an advanced software to give a replica of the teeth and surrounding soft tissues.

Pros of digital impressions compared to traditional impressions:

  • Don’t have to worry about patient’s gag reflex
  • No distortion issues or casting errors
  • Actual impressions are taken quickly
  • Quicker processing as no lab work needed, so cuts out the postage and processing time
  • Less messy to take
  • More accurate impressions

Cons of digital impressions:

  • More expensive

2.    CAD/CAM:

CAD (Computer-Aided Design)/CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) is a technology used in dentistry to make prostheses, such as crowns or veneers. CAD/CAM technology is a subtractive process, which means material is cut away from a block to give the desired shape. If a practice has CAD/CAM mill on site, the prostheses can be made from the image generated from the digital impressions previously mentioned, and handed to the patient on the same day. All this can be done within a couple of hours, meaning only one appointment is needed to create the prostheses from start to finish.

Pros of CAD/CAM technology:

  • High level of accuracy
  • Patient only needs to come in for one appointment

Cons of CAD/CAM technology:

  • Initial cost of equipment and software is high
  • Additional training required for dentist

3.    3D Printing:

3D printing produces a similar result to CAD/CAM technology, but the process to achieve this is different. As opposed to cutting material away from a block, 3D printing is additive, meaning layers of material are fused together to give the desired shape and structure.

4.    Robotic dental implant surgery:

Traditionally, during implant surgery, surgeons heavily rely on plastic guides to direct the drill and keep it in the correct position. However, these guides can often obstruct the view of the surgical site, and the drill is still subject to movement to some degree. As of 2019, dental implant surgery can now be undertaken by a robotic-assisted system, the first of which was called the “Yomi” robot.  Yomi uses sensors and a computerised navigational program to guide the drill, and then holds the position of the drill at the perfect angle, depth and orientation. Although the surgeon remains in control of the surgery, they benefit from increased precision in the placement of the implant, and real-time visual and audio guidance throughout the procedure.

Pros of robotic-assisted dental implant surgery:

  • Increased precision and accuracy
  • Drill does not move out of desired position
  • Constant feedback from the robotic system to the surgeon
  • Greatly reduces human error

Cons of robotic assisted dental implant surgery:

  • Very expensive equipment
  • Requires thorough training for surgeons

5.    Virtual Reality headsets

Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have a wide range of potential uses within dentistry, from anxiety-reduction and relaxation for patients, to life-like surgery simulations for students.

For patients: By wearing a VR headset, patients are separated from the outside world and completely immersed in a virtual environment. The patient can choose from a selection of relaxing environments, such as a beach for example, which distracts from the dental procedure itself and also reduces general feelings of anxiety

For students: VR headsets can also transform the way students observe surgical procedures in theatre. Currently, due to space limitations and health and safety regulations, only a few students are able to look over the surgeon’s shoulder and observe an operation in theatre. However, with a virtual reality camera, surgeons can stream these procedures live and to a global audience, allowing dental students to feel as though they are physically there through the headset.

In conclusion, technological advances in dentistry not only increase the efficiency and convenience of appointments, but offer unparalleled accuracy and precision to the dentist as well. Technology will also undoubtedly continue to transform the way in which students are taught and engage with the field of dentistry in the future.

By Sarah Mehanna (2nd year dental student UoB)