A few months ago, one of my patients, who was in for an overdue recare visit, informed me that she had slipped on the ice in the winter and broken her arm. She described the whole ordeal, including a series of removable casts that allowed for a nonsurgical repair of a compound fracture. The accident was also a temporary setback to her oral health as she had trouble flossing and was overdue for her prophylaxis.
We both marveled at how advances in medicine had changed, and she made a point to mention the same-day (CAD/CAM) digital crown we had done for her a few years ago. She then used the analogy of not having to undergo "old-fashioned" impressions for the crown to not having to wear a heavy plaster cast on her arm for six weeks.
She said she had the x-ray films in her bag, and out of curiosity I asked to see them. Even though our practice has been fully digital for years, I somehow expected her to pull out a large manila envelope. Instead, she retrieved the "films" from a smartphone! As she scrolled through the images showing the fracture and its subsequent healing, her level of engagement in the whole process was not only obvious but contagious. It was akin to the kind of patient engagement we get with digital restorative technology that I have written about here and that others are finding.
That encounter led me to think about the profound changes in technology used by our patients and how important it is for us dentists to see things from the patient's point of view.
Take cellphones or smartphones, for example. According to an April 2015 Pew Research Center Report1:
• 66% of patients are smartphone owners, and for many, these devices are a key entry point to the online world.
• 62% of smartphone owners use their phones to look up information about health conditions.
• Text messaging is the most widely used smartphone feature, used by 97% of smartphone owners, but voice/video calling remains popular, even among young smartphone owners; email continues to retain a place of prominence in the smartphone era.
How well are we responding to these trends? I would love to hear and share your thoughts on where we as dentists have been successful and where we are lagging.
On the clinical side . . . digital dentistry is changing patient experiences too!
We are employing ever more sophisticated digital tools, such as:
• Chairside CAD/CAM technology
• Digital restorative records and online lab communication
• Caries diagnosis
• Computer-aided guided implant planning
• Digital radiography
• Digital photography . . . extraoral and intraoral
• Practice and patient record management
• Patient education
• Shade matching
Even as technology advances, I believe that patients continue to look for the fundamentals of their patient-dentist relationship. They want:
• Privacy (no extraneous people in room)
• Unrushed and meaningful discussion of their concerns and conditions
• Specific individualized recommendations about maintaining and improving their oral health
• Person-to-person empathy and engagement; e.g., eye contact and handshakes
• And, of course, the highest quality care at the lowest cost. They want us to do what we promise dependably and accurately.
How well do we help patients set aside their old stereotypes of dental treatment? How well do we advance their understanding of the drivers of their oral health and how it is integrally linked to their overall health . . . and the new possibilities that are available to them as the technology advances?
Looking back over my digital technology journey in the last 15 years, we have definitely seen a transformation in patient perspectives.
Patients tell us that:
• They appreciate that we are investing to ensure we can provide them with the best quality of care. It enhances their confidence and trust. They also like the high-tech ambience and high visibility of the digital models on the screens, as well as seeing their crowns being milled in real time!
• They love the higher convenience from "same-day restorations" and delight in avoiding the discomfort and gagging of conventional impression taking and retakes.
• Over time, they have also come to realize and value the superior functional and esthetic results and the longer-life CAD/CAM restorations.
• They have a better understanding of their oral health conditions and risks and how to manage them.
But there were and still are concerns and fears of "something new". . . and the cost/benefit equation. By no means do we have all of the answers, and we are always learning. Listening deeply to each individual patient is as crucial as explaining his or her particular care options and oral health risks.
Overall, I have no doubt that technology in all its forms can strengthen the fundamentals at the heart of the dentist/patient relationship. Most patients are comfortable with the growing role digital dentistry is playing in their care experience, but they are less accepting of the technology if it compromises their conversation time with their dentist and undermines the relationship fundamentals.
I would love to hear from you as to how well we as a profession take into account patient perspectives when we introduce such technology into our practices.
1. Pew Research Center. U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/. Accessed September 28 2015.