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Building a ‘futureproof’ digital workflow

July 14, 2021
If you’re looking for ways to build your dental digital workflow (or complement the pieces you already have), Dr. David A. Little has some ideas for creating a strong system.

“Workflow” has been a buzzword in the dental industry for years, but it took on a whole new meaning when COVID-19 hit. When practices reopened after the shutdowns of 2020, teams had to take a hard look at their systems to find more efficient ways to move patients through the dental practice quickly and safely. It was eye-opening, to say the least: systems that had been working well had to work harder, and processes that had been clunky pre–COVID-19 had to be completely reworked.

Now, with life returning to some sense of normalcy, doctors and business owners are applying the lessons they learned from 2020—both good and bad—to build stronger systems for the future.

Digital technology should fit into your existing system and support your daily workflow. It’s at that point when your patients will receive the best treatment—not to mention easier diagnosis, better connectivity, and faster turnaround times for you and your team. When your workflow works well, it makes you more efficient with your patients; when it doesn’t, you’ll find yourself with disparate pieces of technology shoehorned into your practice that you’re more likely to work around than to work with. If you’re looking for ways to build your digital workflow (or complement the pieces you already have), consider these thought-starters for creating a strong system that’s ready for whatever the future may hold.

Getting started: Plan bigger than the pieces

Ask yourself: What do I eventually want to do? Implants, clear aligners? Even if you must build your digital workflow slowly to reach that goal, make sure each investment you make builds on the last and that it can integrate with what you already have. It’s best to stick with one company as you build your digital workflow so you know that everything will work together in a true end-to-end workflow, combining equipment, practice management software, and data capture to power your practice.

Add the pieces as you need them but keep it in the workflow. If for some reason your company of choice doesn’t specialize in a particular piece of equipment that you need to complete your workflow, make sure their systems are accessible—i.e., they “play nicely” with other industry partners for easy integration. Plan for the long term and invest in technology that will work together to “futureproof” your practice.

Digital technology: help or hindrance?

There’s a lot of technology on the market today, and deciding what will help and what will hinder can be tricky. Too often, dentists will dip their toes into digital with an intraoral camera or a digital sensor and consider themselves “digital dentists,” while every other part of their workflow remains the same.

In a way, COVID-19 restrictions acted as a stress test for existing workflows. How quickly were you able to adapt? What proved vital, and what did you find you could live without? For example, when social distancing was strictly enforced, we used our CS 9600 CBCT system (Carestream Dental) for pans and even vertical bitewings so patients could bypass the hygiene room. We were able to get more out of our existing systems, proving their value.

But what about now that many pandemic restrictions have begun to ease? Where else does a digital workflow help? Let’s look at an assistant’s role during a crown and bridge procedure. If they’re using a digital impression scanner like the CS 3700 (Carestream Dental) instead of traditional methods, your workflow will immediately become easier and faster. After the impression is captured, it can be reviewed, approved, and sent off with the push of a button versus the numerous time-consuming steps involved in traditional methods. Digital is not only easier; it also frees up my team’s time from having to disinfect, trim, box up, and ship plaster models—a huge help for everyone.

Tying it together

On their own, either an impression scanner or a cone beam CT system would be fine additions to a practice wanting to go digital, but using software to seamlessly combine the two systems is what will help you arrive at an ideal digital workflow. Take the virtual implant planning workflow, for instance. An intraoral scanner is a great place to start as it obviously eliminates the need for plaster models and saves time and energy. But take it a step further and combine the scanner with a CBCT system. Not only is CBCT considered crucial today for placing implants; planning software can also be used to merge impression scanner files and cone beam CT files. This is great for prosthetic-driven implant planning to virtually visualize the final restoration and then plan backward to make sure you get the result you’re looking for.

That confidence comes across when you present cases to your patients, too. They’re impressed that you can see the end before you start, so the technology wows them as well. And, of course, when you get ready to perform the procedure, your chair time is reduced. Being able to offer these advanced treatment services completely in-house—from first scan to surgery—reflects the ultimate digital workflow.

COVID-19 forced the oral health-care industry to be even more efficient and to tighten up its systems. Some practices found their workflows lacking; some were able to get more out of their existing systems; and some took the opportunity to build out their digital workflows so they could provide more services to patients in-house, such as implants and clear aligners. Whatever lesson you learned in 2020, apply it to the future to protect your practice and patients, no matter what the future holds.  

Editor's note: This article appeared in the July 2021 print edition of Dental Economics.

David A. Little, DDS, is a graduate of the UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry where he holds an adjunct clinical professor position. Dr. Little is an accomplished national and international speaker, professor, author, professional consultant, and clinical researcher focusing on surgical placement and restoration of dental implants. He maintains a multidisciplinary, state-of-the-art dental practice in San Antonio, Texas.

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