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Integration of Technology in the Dental Practice

When considering the incorporation of technology into one's practice, two principal factors must be addressed: 1) why is technology necessary? and 2) what form of technology optimally serves my needs? Although it is also important to determine when to incorporate such information, this will necessarily vary for each individual.

Why is Technology Necessary?

Successful solutions are composed of three elements: the equipment, the personnel who interface with it, and the manufacturer who produces the technology and will be responsible for its integration and maintenance. The failure of any one of these components can compromise the final result. Analysis of these factors can enable clinicians to determine the reason some previous technological products were successful and others were not. This evaluation also permits clinicians to revolutionize their practices with the proper equipment, which allows a more rapid investment return.

Advanced technology and solutions can be divided into two primary categories: invasive and noninvasive. The application of the latter is concentrated on office automation, patient communication and comfort, learning systems, and alternative clinical devices. By focusing their needs, clinicians can benefit in numerous manners (Table). Once areas for improvement have been determined, entry level solutions can be initiated. Since the product itself will be insufficient to cause change, it is critical to acquire modules of technology that allow the business to efficiently expand. It is similarly important to invest in the education and training of office staff, who must adopt novel procedures into daily practice. Although it may be necessary to reserve time for self-training sessions and to upgrade the staff's level of knowledge, this preparation allows the entire office to deliver a higher degree of healthcare.

Selection of Technology

Due to recent growth in the field of advanced technology, the selection of an individual system or equipment can be challenging. Since numerous products and manufacturers are available for similar functions, this situation can be further complicated. The selection of such devices should not be based upon market share or advertising, but on fundamental guidelines that can direct one's focus.

1. Review of Existing Material

Although dental professionals may not be fully satisfied with the performance or financial return on existing technology, many have already incorporated these devices into their clinical practices. Prior to expending further resources on such equipment, however, it is important to determine why it was ineffective. This failure can be attributed to poor equipment selection, insufficient training in the operation and function of the product, or inadequate support from the manufacturer and support team that produced the system. These three considerations have a direct effect on the success of one's technological solution, and must be evaluated prior to exchanging, upgrading, or buying additional equipment.

2. Successful Combinations

When a technological solution has demonstrated its efficacy and has been well-integrated by the clinician and support staff, its manufacturer may prove useful in one's search for additional equipment or resources. While this company may not be able to provide the necessary solution, its representatives can often direct a clinician to the proper alternative. Consequently, the clinician should remember professional colleagues and technical representatives who were involved in the decision-making process.

3. Exposure

Once a product has been introduced and its indications have been defined, it will be used in the clinical environment. Private practitioners and university professionals will document their clinical experiences with the equipment in publications and conferences that allow its performance to be reviewed by the entire industry. When a technological solution is favorably received, it is often supported by advertisements from manufacturers, which, although they provide additional information, must be regarded with caution. Although the exposure of a product--particularly when it is extensive--can be a factor in the selection of a technological system, it must be evaluated by additional criteria as well.

4. Recommendations of Colleagues

Professional colleagues are often able to provide an accurate description of equipment performance, and can be an excellent source of information. Satisfied customers can generate referrals, although one must be careful to evaluate the credibility and impartiality of such recommendations. Since each individual clinician has a distinct profile that is determined by region, education, and experience, however, this reference must be regarded with the aforementioned criteria in mind. The most effective product can vary for several reasons, including technical support at the local level.

5. Independent Evaluations

Several private organizations are responsible for publications that evaluate material performance on a categorized basis. This literature provides clinicians with an alternative source of information on the implementation of technology and may result in the development of novel applications. Consequently, these publications can serve as valuable guides in material selection.

6. Experimental Operation

Although it may be prohibited due to the involved expense or the learning curve, it is advisable to use the product on a trial basis whenever possible. If the device or system cannot be used for an experimental period, it can be beneficial to contact a manufacturer or colleague in order to view a practical demonstration. This process can familiarize the entire staff with the technology as well as increase their level of comfort.

7. Sales Structure

It is mandatory for the clinician to understand in advance the process of acquisition and payment terms. The installation of a technological solution, as well as training and subsequent sales support, should also be factored into the decision-making process. Technical service, maintenance, and troubleshooting are not profitable actions, although they must be periodically scheduled as a matter of priority.

When to Implement Technology

Technology can be incorporated into everyday practice once the clinician and staff have been properly motivated, a philosophy has been defined, and protocols for usage have been established. While technical proficiency and creativity may contribute toward the completion of a project, obsolescence may threaten its long-term success. Unless technology is implemented on a routine basis, however, future adaptations and applications cannot be developed and progress will cease.

Conclusion

It is never easy to begin an unfamiliar process, and even more difficult if one has experienced prior failures. Once the procedure has been initiated, however, the results can be extremely satisfying. As the new decade rapidly approaches, it is incumbent upon the dental professional to explore the opportunities available to him or her. Properly implemented, technology not only provides the opportunity to expand one's practice, but enhances staff production, improves patients' knowledge of the options that are available to them, and fosters an improved perception of the industry as a whole.

Tables

Table 1: Benefits of Incorporating Technology

Reduced chairtime

Improved patient communication and comfort

Enhanced data archiving / retrieval

High-definition imaging and magnification

"Real time" interface with professional colleagues

Conservative restorative dentistry

Reduced staff anxiety and stress

Rapid patient diagnosis and education

Increased profitability

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