The digital revolution that is transforming every aspect of our world is also impacting dentistry and medicine in a multitude of ways, from electronic record-keeping and data analysis to new diagnostic tools, novel prevention methods—and revolutionary treatment options. “The future is wide open,” says Emmott.
Experts say that technological innovation will ultimately improve and broaden access to dental care, allowing for same-day care that translates to fewer office visits—making a healthy smile more affordable.
As more high-quality digital information becomes available to researchers, the potential for more precise diagnosis and treatment only continues to grow. Data including your age, medical and dental health history, as well as your genome, will, for example, allow dental professionals to pinpoint your susceptibility to various types of oral disease. In the near future, doctors and dentists will increasingly tailor treatment to your personal genetics, making choices reflecting what has proven most effective for your genome and your particular physiology. Or they may even decide how to best treat you based on the specific bacteria that’s causing your problem.
A significant part of this revolution is the ongoing development of diagnostic tools that are able to analyze our physical condition with ever-greater precision. That includes advanced digital imaging, like a currently available system called the Canary. During a three-second scan, an electric toothbrush-sized device emits pulsing red laser light; it may detect cracks and caries that are too small to show up on an x-ray. Another device, the “S-Ray,” ultrasonically maps both teeth and gums in 3-D to find cavities and disease. Upon approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, experts think s-rays may be cheaper than x-rays. What’s more, neither of the two systems expose patients to harmful radiation.
Lasers are now being used in both diagnosis and treatment. Dentists are using “soft tissue lasers” for minor gum surgery—but down the road, they may hand these procedures over to computers. “Hard-tissue lasers” could ultimately replace whining high-speed dental drills, removing tooth decay with the aid of tiny, digitally-controlled mirrors. However, the hefty price tag on these devices will have to come down before they are widely used.
New breakthroughs are creating “biomaterials” to fill cavities. For example, a joint project between Harvard and the University of Nottingham has created a synthetic biomaterial that could essentially allow a cavity to heal itself, a development with the potential to greatly reduce tooth deterioration that leads to expensive, painful root canals.
Earlier detection of oral cancer—the sixth deadliest form of cancer—is now possible. The “VELscope” device uses CSI-style blue lights to pick up tissue changes that can’t be seen with the naked eye, highlighting potential problems that may call for a biopsy.
A more futuristic outlook could include nanobots. Some of these microscopic machines might restore or straighten teeth, deliver anesthesia during oral surgery, diagnose diabetes and other diseases, or treat oral cancer. Others may fight bacteria with products like a “wearable toothpaste” made of antimicrobial carbon nanotubes. But nanotech research is complex, and these developments lie far in the future, as human clinical trials would be necessary to determine both efficacy and safety.
Some advances will allow initial scanning to be done at home or at a community health clinic with a smartphone. These technologies will democratize dental care, allowing quick diagnosis of basic problems for people anywhere—even those who live in remote areas or in places where there are few dentists. Ultimately, someone living in a developing country could upload their information and get the same initial analysis as a New Yorker who sees a high-end Madison Avenue dentist.
With the advent of these techno-innovations, basic imaging and other diagnostics won’t need to be done by highly-trained professionals. Soon, technologists will become an integral part of a dental practice, and dentists will focus on the complex, difficult procedures that require their expertise. This should ultimately lower costs.
The future of dentistry looks very different than the practice of today: no drills, no injections, easier access, and shorter treatment time. Overall, there will be a greater emphasis on prevention that translates into fewer cavities and less periodontal disease. The predictions: dentistry will increasingly provide nice, white, healthy smiles.