By Paul Feuerstein, DMD
On my son's ninth birthday, we went to a new restaurant called Buga-boo Creek. While waiting for a table, the hostess began walking in my direction and seemed to be talking to me. She was quite attractive! As I was sucking in my belly, she plainly said, "They are clearing table 19" - and continued to walk right past me. I then realized that she was wearing a wireless headset and was talking to another person.
What an idea for the dental office! Dr. Kent Smith, of Dallas, and Dr. John Flucke, of Kansas City, have all of their staff, including the dentists, communicating via headsets. Hygienists can relate a problem to the doctor before the end of the visit, thus eliminating "the wait." Front-desk personnel - who seek to avoid "The Look" their dentists are apt to fire in their direction when disturbed in the treatment room - can ask questions about patients, schedule changes, incoming phone calls, and other things without leaving their stations.
The systems are available from several retailers; however, Radio Shack is the most popular among the dentists I have questioned. According to Smith, the headsets have not only made communication easier, but have enhanced teamwork. Since all staff members can hear requests for help or "running late" comments, anyone can respond. There is a learning curve, and messages tend to get shorter and more to the point. Users also have the option to turn the set off if, for example, you need to have an uninterrupted conversation with a patient.
While we're on the subject, let's take another look at voice recognition. L&H acquired the popular Dragon Naturally Speaking, but the company went bankrupt shortly thereafter. IBM also contributed to this market with the introduction of Via Voice. However, these products failed to catch on with mainstream users due to their inaccuracies.
The latest Pentium processors, along with Windows XP, have revolutionized voice recognition. Voice training, which previously took over 30 minutes, now can be done in as little as 5 minutes. As a result, both Dragon and IBM have introduced newer products that take advantage of this new technology. Problems still exist with homonyms (their/there), but new artificial intelligence may help with grammar and spelling. The products are quite accurate in recognizing simple words, specifically numbers and letters. This is wonderful with restoration and perio charting. Practice-management software companies also are working to integrate their products with this technology.
Computer-dictated clinical notes are not yet totally practical; however, there are other approaches. Many recommend the use of "macros." This entails the dentist pre-typing commonly used phrases that can be strung together from a simple menu. The menu items available by voice command ("open list;" "down, down, down;" "yes"). are clumsy, but certainly work. Another option, thanks to the giant storage capacities of today's hard drives, is storing the actual voice dictation. Typically, these are stored as "wav" files, but compression will string these voice notes to a manageable size, much like music files can be stored as small mp3s.
I am always on the lookout for unique products that are technological marvels. Although this one was not designed specifically for dental use, its simplicity warrants a look. If you have ever gone camping and brought your cell phone, you were soon faced with the reality that there are no electrical outlets in the middle of the woods for recharging. Enter Motorola Free Charge. It is a small unit that has a crank. After a few minutes of turning, you will have up to five minutes of talk time and a couple of hours of standby time.
Soon, you may see a crank on your laptop or even on the front of your automobile! Or better yet - how about a pedal-driven hand- piece? Once again, an old technology has merged with today's.
The old adage still holds true - the more things change, the more they stay the same. I'll keep on the lookout for more "back to the future" items to report on in this column.
Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry's first computers when he placed a system in his office in 1978, and he has been fascinated by technology ever since. For more than 20 years, he has taught courses on technology throughout the country. He is a mainstay at technology sessions in New England, including annual appearances at the Yankee Dental Congress, and has been a part of the ADA's Technology Day since its inception. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www.computersindentistry.com) and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.