by Tony Soileau, DDS
When digital cameras first came out in the early 1990s, they had an immediate impact on dentistry. The dental industry was already increasing its use of photography for diagnosing, treatment-planning, and lab communication prior to the digital revolution. This involved the use of both slide and print film. But the early digital cameras had as many advantages as disadvantages. The biggest advantage of digital cameras over slide and print film cameras was the abandonment of just that - film. Film was expensive and very inefficient because it came in roles of 24, 36, etc., exposures.
If the dentist needed only a few photos - such as a photo of a shade tab against a tooth for laboratory communication - most of the film was not used. There was also the revolving cost of buying and developing film. Individual roles of film could be used by the dentist or team member until all exposures were made, but this was time consuming and film still had to be continually purchased.
Digital cameras eliminated this problem by saving the images to reusable storage media such as compact flash cards. The dental team could now take the actual number of images needed without wasting film and they could also take really good photos easily. Cameras using 35 mm film or slides required setting the shutter speed and aperture manually, meaning the user had to have some photography knowledge and experience to get good pictures.
Digital cameras are computer-based. The camera takes the effort out of photography by choosing the settings for the photographer. This means anyone, regardless of photography experience, can take great photos. But the digital cameras of the 1990s were not perfect and certainly not the same quality as cameras today. The biggest problem was the size of the image. While the camera could take great images, the resolution (or size of the image) was very small. This is no longer the case. While the first digital cameras took photos less than one megapixel in size, today’s digital cameras capture images at 10-plus megapixels.
Focusing was also a problem with the first digital cameras. While the early cameras could take an image of a smile with no problems, they struggled to focus inside the mouth. This was due to their lack of external flash systems. Today, even point-and-shoot digital cameras have the ability to mount a ring flash to illuminate the inside of the mouth. This eliminates the focusing problem.
The other problem was cost. Some early cameras did take 3-plus megapixel images, but they cost $10,000 or more. Today, the cheapest cameras are the size of a credit card and take 5-plus megapixel images, and the best dental digital cameras, such as the Canon D series, cost under $3,000 and take 8-plus megapixel photos. With these improvements, there are more opportunities to use digital cameras in a busy dental practice. Here is a list of just some of the ways to make a dental practice more efficient and productive.
Digital photography can be a huge aid in diagnosing dental problems. Digital cameras capture images with superb quality that, in many cases, surpasses print and slide film. Taking digital photos of the patient’s teeth both inside and out of the mouth can help the dentist see problems that might have been missed.
Diagnosing in the mouth with an explorer is very inefficient compared to viewing high-definition photos on large-screen monitors. The dental team can see the occlusal and buccal views of both arches without the lips, tongue, and saliva in the way. The smile, facial view, and occlusal relationship can be evaluated on high-definition monitors. The smallest occlusal pits, cracks, and wear facets can be seen and diagnosed quickly and easily. It takes only minutes to do a series of photographs on a patient during a hygiene evaluation or emergency exam.
Once the dental pathology has been diagnosed with the use of digital photography and digital radiography, it can be augmented with visual exams and laser cavity detectors. This makes treatment-planning easier and faster. Viewing an entire arch or retracted smile at once is a lot easier than examining a single tooth with a small, quarter-sized mouth mirror. Frequently, dental problems are missed, not because the dentist is not thorough, but because he or she does not have the time to examine the mouth tooth by tooth with a mouth mirror. Digital photography allows the dentist to see practically everything at once or with just a few images. Dental care can then be treatment-planned and offered.
In addition to diagnosing and treatment-planning dental- related pathology such as cavities, cracks, occlusal wear, and cancer, cosmetic concerns can be treatment-planned faster and easier with digital photography. With the use of digital-editing software such as DENTRIX® Image (now sold by Dexis), Adobe Photoshop, and Thumbs Plus, the patient smiles can be recreated digitally in seconds. Together, the dental team and patient can analyze concerns and make changes to the digital images prior to any irreversible treatment being performed. This helps ensure a successful outcome.
4) Case presentation
The key to any successful practice is case presentation. Let’s face it - a dental practice is a business and profits must be made. This can be a win-win relationship between the practice and patient. The patient receives a healthier mouth and improved esthetics, if desired. The dental practice receives increased income leading to higher profits. This relationship centers around the ability of the team to communicate the dental pathology to the patient and reassure the patient that his or her elective needs will be met successfully. Many dental teams are not comfortable with the selling aspect of dentistry. Digital photography allows patients to see the pathology for themselves, which decreases the effort it takes to explain both the problems and solutions.
5) Insurance reimbursement
Insurance is a part of most dental practices. Whether you accept assignment of benefits or not, it is still a good idea for a service-oriented dentist to help patients receive their dental benefits. Digital photos can be sent by e-mail or printed (along with digital radiographs) and mailed to insurance companies. Even if the insurance company denies payment, patients will perceive the dentist has their best interests at heart. How many times do dentists hear patients say, “If my insurance does not pay for it, then I must not need it.” With digital photos, instead of rejecting treatment because “I must not need it,” patients will ask, “What do you mean my insurer won’t pay for my crown? Can’t they see the crack in my tooth shown in the photo?”
6) Lab communication
Lab communication can make or break a dental case, particularly in the esthetic area. Digital cameras are ideal for lab communication. The quality or resolution of today’s digital cameras exceeds that of film. The cameras are very easy to use, even for a novice photographer. The images are digital, so they can be burned to a CD, printed, or even e-mailed to your laboratory.
7) Specialist communication
Using digital photography to communicate with your specialist is often overlooked by dentists. While the dentist must be respectful of HIPAA rules, e-mailing patient images is a great way to have an online conference with your periodontist, oral surgeon, or endodontist. You can have an almost instantaneous conference by taking a few photos of the patient’s problems, e-mailing them in a secure manner to your specialist, and then having a phone conference while the patient is still in the chair. This saves the patient’s time and further enhances the relationship among the general dentist, patient, and specialist.
8) Internal marketing
Displaying photos of your work in your office is a great way to communicate your skills and services to patients. This is especially true for new patients who may not be aware of your esthetic talents. Digital photos can be taken of your cases and patients, printed out on an inexpensive inkjet printer, and displayed throughout your office. You can even have your patients write testimonials on the prints!
9) External marketing
Print ads for dental practices are becoming more mainstream. Dentists are finally realizing they are running a business. To survive, they need new patients on a steady basis. While stock photos can be used effectively, nothing is better than having your own patients featured in your print ads. The probability of your patient being recognized in the ads is a great reason to use your own photography.
Today’s digital cameras can easily take professional-level photos that look like you hired a professional photographer to take them. A number of courses are now available to dentists focusing on marketing and fashion-style photography as opposed to simple clinical photography.
10) Accreditation and Fellowship
Receiving recognition from your peers through accreditation and fellowship in organizations such as the Academy of Comprehensive Esthetics or the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry is a fantastic honor. Every dentist should strive to continually improve his or her clinical skills. These organizations and others like them allow dentists to be recognized for achieving a higher level of skills than when they graduated from dental school. Digital photography allows dentists to demonstrate and evaluate their cases on a highly magnified level. By evaluating their cases in this way, they can take steps to improve their skills.As digital photography continues to improve and become more mainstream, its uses will continue to expand. For many practices, digital photography is an integral part of their success and will continue to grow in value into the future.
Dr. Tony Soileau is a general dentist from Lafayette, La. He has taught digital photography at the Pacific Aesthetic Continuum in San Francisco, the Institute of Oral Art & Design in Tampa, Fla., and the Esthetic Epitome in Charlotte, N.C. Soileau is currently a co-director for the genR8TNext digital photography program. Contact Soileau by phone at (337) 234-3551 or by e-mail at [email protected].