The practice of dentistry is shifting in such a way that data-driven decisions are becoming a key factor in how patients receive dental care. The information gathered at several points of dental care is essential for delivering quality care, but what are dental providers doing with the data that’s generated? Dentistry is lagging behind the medical field in embracing health IT. But with the rapid adoption of electronic dental records (EDRs), the profession is moving in a more structured and digital direction.1
How to use EDRs
EDRs are a rich source of valuable information, and the analysis of that information can provide insights to help dental professionals improve patient health by diagnosing dental disease at an early stage.2 Currently, there are analytics platforms that seek to maximize care operations across the spectrum of practice management. Most practice management systems produce an overview of pertinent patient information; however, analyzing patient and provider data more deeply can enhance patient care in many ways.
This type of analysis allows dental practitioners to learn from their own data, as well as from aggregated data across practices to compare their practice with their peers’.3 Likewise, researchers can examine this real-world data to understand the quality of care delivered to different populations.3 Dental data analytics and machine learning processes can be employed by small private practices, large dental service organizations, and dental educational institutions to improve services.
Data-driven dentistry comes with a price. As health-care systems move from fee-for-service to value-based care and digital data becomes mainstream, uniform data standards in terminology, diagnostics, treatments, and software applications are crucial for value-based health care.1 Just like the demands of federal and state programs to promote EHR adoption within health care, the dental profession is starting to engage information technology to meet clinical, administrative, research, and educational needs.4
However, it’s worth noting that the collection of dental data is valuable only if it’s performed in a systemic way with interlinked data standards.4 Unlike electronic health records (EHRs) in the medical field, there is no mandate for dental providers to adopt EDRs. Nevertheless, use is increasing, as the overall adoption rate of EDRs for clinical support is around 52%.5 This growth, along with the need for efficient record keeping, is driven by two factors: cases of severe periodontal disease in approximately 25% of people ages 65-74, and increased awareness of the importance of maintaining oral health, especially among the elderly.5
EDRs, EHRs, software applications, and systemically linked data standards all revolve around dental informatics, a multidisciplinary field that seeks to improve health care through health information technology (HIT), health information management, health-care administration, research, information gathering, and synthesis and knowledge sharing.4 Until recently, the concept of dental informatics lurked in the shadows. As a relatively new field, it has the potential to bring a wide range of applications and tools to clinical dental practice.6 Emerging applications are already being used in dentistry, such as CAD/CAM, 3-D printing, and AI technologies that assist in diagnosing dental disease and oral cancer. These applications and tools generate a wealth of data. The key is not in the quantity of data, but how the data is used.7 Dental informatics seeks to understand the science behind the data.
The goal of dental informatics
The main goal of dental informatics is to improve patient outcomes and make the delivery of care more precise, and EDRs support the scientific basis of dental informatics methodology. Couple data knowledge with sound evidence-based practices, and clinicians can solve more problems. As a result, the methodology behind dental informatics can be beneficial for the diagnosis of oral diseases, all while maintaining and improving cost-benefit ratios for providers and patients.6
Likewise, improvements in research and education must be supported by dental informatics. Improvements in these areas often translate into better patient care.6 As these advancements progress, the need for computer savvy providers who embrace information technology will rise exponentially, along with the adoption and implementation of EDRs. Considering that dentists are experts in the problem domain, they must also be familiar with the problem-solving process.6
So, how do we embrace the concept of dental informatics? It begins with the understanding of problem solving processes via health-care technology with the idea to develop, implement, and maintain e-health initiatives.6 With the advances in technology, it’s possible to mine and utilize massive amounts of dental record data to determine which dental therapies work and which don’t.3 The appropriate collection and analysis of dental data, whether it is within small dental practices, large dental service organizations, or educational institutions, can benefit the practice of dentistry. It will take people with the desire to learn the science behind data gathering, storage, management, and analysis, and who have the ability to use the data, to promote and advance the dental industry in a positive way.
1. Joda T, Waltimo T, Probst-Hensch N, Pauli-Magnus C, Zitzmann NU. Health data in dentistry: an attempt to master the digital challenge. Public Health Genomics. 2019:22;1-7. doi:10.1159/000501643
2. Joshi N. These 3 technologies are transforming dentistry. Allerin. August 28, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.allerin.com/blog/these-3-technologies-are-transforming-dentistry
3. Kent J. Dental record data analytics to improve oral health outcomes. Health IT Analytics. June 10, 2020. Accessed June 23, 2020. https://healthitanalytics.com/news/dental-record-data-analytics-to-improve-oral-health-outcomes
4. American Dental Association. What is dental informatics? ADA center for Informatics and Standards. Accessed July 12, 2020. https://www.ada.org/en/member-center/member-benefits/practice-resources/dental-informatics
5. Electronic dental records (EDR) support patient health portfolio. Harmony Healthcare IT. August 8, 2019. Accessed August 1, 2020. https://www.harmonyhit.com/electronic-dental-records-edr-support-patient-health-portfolio
6. Marya CM, Swati S, Nagpal R, Sakshi K, Pratibha T. Dental informatics: Integrating technology into dentistry. Austin Dent Sci. 2020;5(1):1025. https://austinpublishinggroup.com/austin-dental-sciences/fulltext/ads-v5-id1025.php
7. Lewis D, Madison-Harris R, Muoneke A, Times C. Using data to guide instruction and improve student learning. SECL Letter. Accessed August 1, 2020. https://sedl.org/pubs/sedl-letter/v22n02/using-data.html
SHANNON SOMMERS, MSHI, BTDH, RDH, has a bachelor of technology in dental hygiene from the State University of New York at Canton and a master of science in health informatics from the Medical University of South Carolina. She has more than 20 years of experience in dentistry and has been a dental hygienist since 2006. She aims to use her dental background and informatics skills to promote and advance the use of dental informatics. Contact her at [email protected].
ALICIA WEBB, MSHI, BTDH, RDH, has been a clinician in dentistry since 2006 and has experience as an educator in a dental hygiene program. As one of the few registered dental hygienists to graduate with a master of science in health informatics, she wants to use her informatics knowledge along with her dental background to improve population health by developing and analyzing data-driven solutions to improve the delivery of quality dental care. Webb can be reached at [email protected].