How do we preserve the human touch?

Digital dentistry offers us a chance to improve treatment outcomes, keeping our patients feeling like people, not a number, is paramount.

I have written extensively in this column and elsewhere about the virtues and uses of different digital dental technologies in today's practice. If too much focus is placed on technology, is it possible that we could lose that critical human touch that is so vital to patient care? We cannot allow technology to substitute or overshadow the doctor-patient relationship. I recently had a firsthand experience of this when undergoing an MRI scan. I felt as though a computer, not a person, was doing the procedure-and it was. This made me think: Do our patients feel that way sometimes?

The human touch across the digital dental workflow

We are blessed to be in a profession where we are trained to be both compassionate communicators and competent technicians. It is not possible to practice successfully without mastering those two roles. We arrive at diagnoses by being good observers and listeners. Treatment acceptance and compliance by our patients require us to have refined communication skills. There has been a proliferation of new technologies that support our ability to diagnose and treat our patients in day-to-day practice. We should use technology to enhance, not substitute, these skills. It is imperative that we put ourselves in our patients' shoes and use appropriate verbal skills to explain what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the patient will experience. Also, anyone in the practice who has any contact with the patient should have a good understanding of the technology so that they can discuss the new innovations using relatable vocabulary.

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We see all around us that technology changes rapidly. We also know that people—patients and dentists—change slowly. Different generations adapt to the changing technologies at different paces. To keep the human touch, we are challenged to ease these changes as they are introduced to our patients.

Benefits of the human touch

By making sure the human touch is not lost, but is included as part of an office's advancement, we achieve better patient engagement. These enlightened patients understand their conditions and treatment options more deeply. When technology delivers on the promise of improved diagnostics, more predictable results, and overall better care, then we can serve our patients with increased confidence. This confidence can go a long way to improve interest and compliance.

We have found that with digital radiographs, for example, it is much easier to engage patients in an explanation of findings when looking at a large monitor. Patients can relate to 3-D digital simulations of tooth movement when reviewing orthodontic treatment. CBCT scans allow for reliable implant treatment planning and enable patients to better understand bone and nerve anatomy. This also leads to conversations regarding implant placement, bone grafting, and sinus lifts. With this increased information, patients are now able to be more involved in understanding benefits of various treatment options. This information allows for more in-depth communication about a patient's long-term well-being and thus strengthens the connection between patient and practitioner.

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Reduce risks, realize benefits

With any new addition, it is key to both optimize technology's use while also reducing risks to the practice. The first and most important step to achieving this is to be sure the correct technology is implemented based on the goals and mission of the office. Next, it is essential for the office team to know the full potential of the new advanced tools as well as how to use them properly. With increased information available quickly, findings should be shared with patients in real time. Keep the flow of communication open. With the proper incorporation of new technologies in the practice, the human relationship between the dentist and patient can ultimately be strengthened.

Editor's note: If you have any questions for Dr. Kaye, he can be reached at drgarykaye@nycdd.org.


Gary Kaye, DDS, FAGD, founder of the New York Center for Digital Dentistry, has practiced comprehensive dentistry in New York City since 1993. He graduated from Columbia University of Dental Medicine in 1993 where he received awards in endodontics, prosthodontics, and geriatric dentistry. Dr. Kaye consults with other dentists and dental manufacturers and lectures on topics including ceramics, occlusion, and digital dentistry. He is on the guest faculty of Planmeca University in Dallas, Texas.

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