“Remember when you took a photo with a camera, filled up a roll of film, dropped it off for developing, and picked up an envelope full of photos a week later? You could even order extra prints to share with friends and family! This year, over a trillion images will be captured digitally by more phones than cameras, shared instantaneously with billions of people around the world, and can be output on the side of a coffee cup or top of a birthday cake within minutes. In less than a generation, digital technology has fundamentally changed how we capture, view, manipulate and think about images.
Similarly, while dentistry has benefited from the use of digital x-rays and intraoral images over the past 20 years, it is the new generation of digital 3D blueprints being captured with Intraoral Scanners (IOS) and cone beam imaging devices that are revolutionizing the dental industry. When combined with the exciting design and output technologies, such as CAM milling and 3D printing, many of the procedures and restorations that exist today will be done chairside, instantly, and for a fraction of today’s cost in the very near future.”
That’s how I began my lecture at The Profitable Dentist Annual Spring Break Seminar to a room filled with 1200 dentist-owners back in 2015. The lecture was titled: “What the Heck is a Digital Workflow, and Why Should I Care?” I remember after the lecture having serious conversations with skeptical dentist-owners about how it was “Just a fad,” and that, “It’s too complicated to ever work,” and “Nobody will be able to afford all this unnecessary technology.”
Well, as gaps have continued to fill in over the past eight years, I thought it would be a good time to do an update, and what I found is that virtually no part of a modern dental office has remained untouched by a digital workflow.
Defining Digital Workflows
Digital workflows in general dental offices involve the integration of various technologies and software to streamline and enhance dental procedures and administrative tasks. The following sections outline the key steps involved in a digital workflow:
- Digital Patient Records
In lieu of traditional paper files, patient records are now stored electronically using dental practice management software, often in cloud-based systems. This digital storage enables easy access to patient information anytime, anywhere, ensuring efficient organization and secure data storage.
- Appointment Scheduling
Digital workflows allow patients to book appointments online or through integrated patient portals within the practice management software. This digital approach reduces manual effort and optimizes appointment scheduling.
- Digital Imaging
Digital imaging involves capturing X-rays, intraoral scans, and other dental images using digital sensors or intraoral cameras. These images can be instantly viewed, manipulated, and shared with patients or specialists for diagnosis and treatment planning.
- Treatment Planning
Dentists utilize specialized software to analyze patient images, create treatment plans, and discuss various options with the patient. Digital tools enable accurate measurements, simulations, and the creation of 3D models, ultimately improving treatment outcomes.
- Electronic Prescriptions
Digital workflows facilitate the generation of electronic prescriptions for medications or dental products. These prescriptions can be directly sent to the patient’s preferred pharmacy or dental supplier, eliminating the need for handwritten or printed prescriptions.
- Chairside Integration
Within the treatment room, dentists can access patient records, treatment plans, and imaging results on chairside monitors or tablets. This real-time reference allows for seamless communication with the patient during procedures.
- Digital Documentation
Clinical notes, progress updates, and treatment details are entered electronically, ensuring comprehensive and legible documentation. This digital approach supports effective communication within the dental team and provides accurate records for future reference.
- Dental Lab Communication
For cases requiring dental lab work, digital communication is established between the dental office and the dental laboratory. This enables the secure transmission of digital impressions and treatment specifications, reducing turnaround time and enhancing accuracy.
- Billing and Insurance Claims
Digital workflows facilitate electronic processing of dental billing and insurance claims, reducing paperwork and administrative errors. Practice management software automates the billing process, including invoice generation, claim submission, and payment tracking.
- Follow-up and Recall Systems
Automated reminders and communication tools are employed to send patients appointment reminders, follow-up instructions, and recall notifications for regular check-ups and preventive care.
Benefits and Impact of Digital Workflows
Implementing a digital workflow in dental offices yields several advantages, enhancing efficiency, accuracy, and patient experience while reducing manual tasks and paperwork. Moreover, digital workflows foster enhanced patient engagement, infection control measures, and economic efficiencies within dental practices.
The Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated the adoption of digital workflows in general dental practices. Key advancements during this time include the increased utilization of telehealth platforms for virtual consultations, the transition to electronic health record systems, and the implementation of digital imaging and radiography technologies. Additionally, CAD/CAM systems, remote monitoring tools, online appointment scheduling platforms, and contactless payment systems have become prevalent, further transforming dental practices.
Incorporating digital workflows in general dental practices leads to notable economic improvements, such as enhanced efficiency, cost reduction, improved patient experience, advanced treatment planning, and increased revenue generation. Furthermore, digital workflows ensure regulatory compliance, provide enhanced marketing opportunities, and enable data-driven decision making.
Impact on Patient Care and Relationships
The implementation of digital workflows in dental practices results in various patient care and patient relationship improvements. These include enhanced efficiency, improved accuracy in record-keeping and diagnosis, advanced diagnostics, patient education, remote consultations, improved communication, personalized treatment plans, follow-up and reminders, and enhanced safety through secure data storage and privacy measures.
Implementing a digital workflow in dentistry represents more than adopting new technology; it represents a fundamental improvement in the entire dental practice. Digital workflows enhance efficiency, accuracy, patient outcomes, and overall dental practice effectiveness. Through advanced tools and software integration, dentists can provide higher-quality care while optimizing their workflow. Digital workflows facilitate improved communication and collaboration, comprehensive treatment planning, advanced diagnostics, and precise outcomes in various procedures. The transformative shift towards digital workflows elevates the practice of dentistry, enhancing the patient experience and strengthening the patient-dentist relationship.