No ones taking charge

March 1, 1999
Intraoral video cameras are one of the most powerful technology tools available in dentistry today. Integrating cameras with a computer makes them even more effective and less costly.

Larry Emmott, DDS

Intraoral video cameras are one of the most powerful technology tools available in dentistry today. Integrating cameras with a computer makes them even more effective and less costly.

For the past 10 years, almost all camera systems have been printer-based. That is the system relied on a video printer or mavograph to electronically capture and record video images. Digital image management systems, which allow the user to capture store and manipulate intraoral images with a computer, have made these printer systems obsolete. If you are shopping for an intraoral camera, be careful; it is easy to make an expensive mistake.

Basic printer-based cameras sell for $8,000 to $10,000 for a single-cart system. The cart system will include the camera, a video printer, a TV, various wires and switches, and the cart. For a multioperatory system, docking station`s wiring and a TV add up to $3,000 per room. Added all together, a three operatory system will be at least $14,000, and maybe a lot more.

The latest technology is to eliminate the printer and integrate the camera images with a computer. To do this, you will need an image management system including image-capture hardware and image management software that is added to computers and monitors in the treatment rooms. However, you won`t need a printer, a TV, docking stations, network wiring, and a cart. These advanced systems are much more effective, and the cost is comparable to the old printer-based cameras.

Video Printers: To cut through all the confusion and make an informed decision, there are some basic technology elements you need to understand first. Intraoral video cameras produce an analog video signal, which you can view on a TV. If you want to freeze or save an image you need a video printer. The freeze frame, four-frame screen shots, and other tricks camera vendors show you are not part of the camera. They are a feature of the video printer. When you freeze an image with the video printer, the only way to save it is to print a hard copy, which costs about a dollar.

Saving to the Computer: The newer and better way to save an image is to digitize it and save it electronically on the computer disk. "Digitize" is one of those fashionable computer terms often tossed about and sometimes not well understood. All it really means is to turn data into numbers or digits, which can be read and used by a computer. Data in this case is not limited to letters and numbers but can be almost anything, including pictures.

To digitize an image you need a capture card, which will turn the analog video image into a digitized computer image. A digitized image can be viewed on the computer monitor but not on a TV. Conversely, a video image can be viewed on a TV but not on the computer monitor. Once something is digitized it can be manipulated, analyzed, stored, or transmitted electronically. Plus, a digitized image can be placed in documents and printed with a regular color printer for pennies.

Numerous video-capture systems are available. The most popular is a simple and inexpensive device called "Snappy." Snappy is available in almost any computer store or catalogue for under $200. The image quality of Snappy is decent but not great. A Snappy image can be used in all the ways mentioned above. However, it isn`t designed specifically for dentists, and most dentists probably won`t be interested enough to make the effort to make it work. If you capture an image with Snappy, there is no simple way to import images to a patient`s chart.

Several image capture and management systems are designed specifically for dentistry. They will integrate with most management software programs and are easy to use. However, they are much more expensive than Snappy. At this time, the two leading dental image management systems are Vipersoft and Tigerview.

Advanced Systems: Now comes the part the camera vendors often don`t seem to understand, and, if they do, they won`t tell you. If you use digital capture, you do not need a video printer. If you don`t buy a printer, you will save about $1,700. And, you also save on the cost of prints.

You don`t need a printer because image management software provides the same electronic controls as the printer. In other words, you can freeze, save, and print images from the computer using a basic inkjet color printer. The printed images are close to a photograph but not quite as good as you get with a good video printer. However, there is a distinct advantage to saving images on the computer. For example, saved digital images can be recalled and placed as before-and-after shots together on the same screen. This is not possible with a video printer; once the freeze frame is closed, the image is gone forever.

You also won`t need prewiring from the video printer to the docking stations. You will simply plug into the treatment room computer, which is already connected to an office-wide network. The images are viewed on the computer monitor in the treatment room, eliminating the TV and saving another $400 to $600 per room.

What to get? If you eliminate the video printer, docking stations, three TVs and the wiring, you can save $6,500 or more. That`s at least the price of an image management system.

Virtually all intraoral video cameras can be used with computer capture systems. If you are using, or plan to use, treatment room-based computers, digital image management is the obvious choice. If you have never used an intraoral video camera, jumping from no camera to a computer-based digital setup may be a stretch. However, it will actually cost less and deliver more than the old printer-based systems with big TVs and docking stations.

Intraoral cameras are one of the most powerful technology tools available in dentistry today. If you don`t have one, you should. However, if you are shopping for a camera, make sure it will integrate easily with a computer. Don`t invest in a major hard-wired analog system and big 20-inch TVs. Don`t get caught up with printer tricks; there are better and cheaper ways to do the job. Consider starting immediately with digital image management and eliminating the need for a printer, wiring, and TVs.

The future is coming, and it will be amazing.

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