The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is especially true in dentistry. About 70% of people are visual learners, with dentists being even more so. When dentists communicate with patients or peers, visual imagery is key to their success. Diagnosis, treatment planning, patient education, interdisciplinary collaboration, and practice promotion require effective imaging. You could say that what you see is what you get. Not getting that shortchanges you in terms of treatment outcomes, case acceptance, and practice production.
Dentists understand that imaging is fundamental to diagnosis and treatment planning. Without radiographs, dentistry would literally be practicing in the dark. Although conventional radiography has served dentistry very well over the years, today’s digital radiography is far better, and it surprises me that, as of this writing, just 60% of dentists in the United States use digital x-rays.
The advantages of digital radiography are innumerable. Besides the savings realized in not having to use film and developing chemicals (and these cost savings let digital systems pay for themselves promptly), digital radiography affords superior diagnostics with image size, contrast, acuity, and magnification (Figures 1 and 2). Unlike radiographs viewed on lightboxes, digital radiographs give doctors superior diagnostics since they can be manipulated by their associated software.
Digital radiography also enhances patient communication. Prior to digital technology, holding up radiographs to operatory unit lights over patients and having them see what I wanted them to, never mind understand it, never worked well for me. I suspect this is the case for most doctors. By contrast, when having patients look at radiographs on a computer monitor while indicating conditions with a cursor, magnifying salient features, and enhancing sharpness or contrast, those images become powerful diagnostic and communications tools (Figure 3).
Moreover, this technology supports improved interprofessional communication and boosts interdisciplinary treatment. Copying film radiographs is problematic. Emailing digital radiographs to a specialist or a general practice in another state where your patient has moved makes such transfers much easier. The ability to look at and adjust images as clinicians teleconference about them in real time is enormously beneficial.
Beyond the traditional views used in most practices, digital imaging has afforded dentistry cone beam computed tomography (CBCT). First introduced to America in 2001 (NewTom QR 9000 [QR, srl]), these machines (such as the Galileos Comfort Plus[Dentsply Sirona] and CS 8100 3D [Carestream Dental]) give us 360° of vision into our patients. Their advantages cannot be overemphasized! CBCT has revolutionized how we plan and execute treatment. It can tell oral surgeons whether impacted lower molars impinge upon inferior alveolar nerves or are merely superimposed on them by 2-dimensional panoramic images (Figures 4 to 6). It also can show endodontists accessory canals or hidden pathologies (Figure 7).
CBCT technology is especially valuable in implant dentistry. CBCT scans are uniquely capable of identifying relevant anatomical structures, determining if a sinus lift is needed, detecting whether adjacent roots will impede implant placement, or selecting the size of a dental implant in a particular site (Figure 8). These scans, with their associated software (such as Simplant [Dentsply International] or CS 3D [Carestream Dental]), are also a tremendous aid in communication with the dental laboratory team.
Immediate protocols for implant dentistry are essential today. Demanding patients who require treatment in the aesthetic zone insist on them and will choose their practitioner on that basis. Looking at the effect of ClearChoice dental implant centers on our profession obviates this. CBCT scanning software can marry clinical images with intraoral impressions to fabricate surgical stents necessary for guided implant placement (Figures 9 and 10) as well as custom abutments with their provisional and definitive restorations.5 This is done using computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) processes, planning from the point of those restorations backward (Figures 11 to 13) as required in restoratively driven implant dentistry.6
Imaging for Communication
Intraoral cameras (such as the Schick USBCam4 [Dentsply Sirona] or the IRIS HD 3.0 [Digital Doc]) and still photography are vital to dental imaging for peer, patient, and dental laboratory communication, case documentation, and treatment acceptance7 (Figures 14 to 16). The first intraoral camera was analog, introduced in 1987 (DentaCam [Fuji Optical Systems]). In 2011, Dental Practice Report noted that 70% of American dentists had intraoral cameras, showing that doctors accept intraoral videography more than digital radiography.
Digital camera systems for dentistry were first introduced in 2003. Digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras (such as the D7200[Nikon] or the T2i [Canon]) have dental packages available from dealers like Lester A. Dine or CliniPix. Clinical still photography, despite its advocacy by many dental organizations, has never gained the level of popularity it deserves with American dentists. Manufacturers’ representatives are your best source of technical training for these cameras. However, for clinical still photography or, especially, portraiture, courses such as those offered by Dr. Jason Olitsky at the Clinical Mastery Series are invaluable.
It should be noted that the smaller file sizes of intraoral camera images are often insufficient for some forms of communication. When specialists need to see intricate details of soft-tissue lesions or laboratories need shade information, digital still photography is inherently superior to an intraoral camera. The mapping generated by some of today’s digital shade matchers (such as SpectroShade Micro II [SpectroShade] or Zfx Shade [Zfx GmbH]) is advantageous to laboratory technicians who are tasked with matching the restorations to the lifelike look of adjacent natural teeth (Figure 17). They are extremely reliable and boast remarkable accuracy.
Also, dentists who lecture and/or write clinical articles will need the higher-quality images of a digital camera. It has been my experience that print journals find the smaller file sizes from many intraoral cameras (as well as digital radiography software) inadequate for the production process. This is where these software platforms need improvement.
When it comes to my finished cosmetic and aesthetic cases, clinical photography is imperative (Figures 18 and 19). Dental patients expect and only accept such treatment after seeing photographs of your own cases and computer simulations using their before pictures. While stock before and after photos of cosmetic cases are available online (at shutterstock.com, for example), I believe it is far better to show patients your own work for credibility should resulting outcomes not match patient expectations created by stock photos.
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