What will the future of dentistry look like?

The future of dentistry

What will dental care look like over the next several years and decades?
June 2, 2016

Have you noticed anything different about your dental visits lately? Perhaps your dentist uses quicker digital X-rays to check your teeth for underlying decay, or maybe you’ve even experienced a state-of-the art dental implant procedure.

The future of oral care will likely be filled with these kinds of changes, both large and small, as research and education converge to provide patients with the best prevention and treatment methods.

“Regenerative dentistry is the future,” said Gerald Glickman, DDS, M.S., MBA., J.D., chair of the department of endodontics at the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry. Indeed, researchers at the college are delving into techniques from stem cells to bone regeneration. Someday, dentists may be able to regenerate a person’s tooth and eliminate the need for fillings or implants altogether.

Dental students of today have to be prepared to put into practice all of these innovations. “The practice of dentistry is getting more complex over time, and their education has to keep pace,” Glickman said. “Students use a combination of online and computer-aided learning to augment their training in the classroom and the clinic, making for a very dynamic curriculum.”

Texas A&M Baylor College of Dentistry students also use electronic records for their patients, so they’re comfortable using them by the time they graduate. The advantages of electronic dental records are similar to those of electronic medical records and include improved efficiency and safety. Electronic records can also be used to fuel the “big data” revolution, because they provide population-level information that can help patients make better diagnostic and treatment decisions. For example, by looking at similar cases, dentists could get an idea of what works best and what the patient can expect in terms of both time in the dental chair and recovery at home. This sort of evidence-based medicine is not as advanced as it soon will be in dentistry, according to Glickman, but as the data becomes more widely available, it will be integrated both into dental practices and into the dental curriculum.

“In four years, we have to prepare these students to practice,” Glickman said. “We only have a very limited amount of time to mold them into dentists who are ready to take on responsibility for actual patients.” One way the college does so is by emphasizing critical thinking and problem solving skills, but continuing education is also important. “Our goal is to cultivate not only the best dental practitioners but also future educators, leaders and researchers,” he said.

Becoming a dentist today means more than mastering technology, though. “Interprofessional education will be part of the future of dentistry,” said Glickman, who is also a former president of the American Dental Education Association. “We are already moving toward this as we teach our students the importance of working hand-in-hand with other health professionals.”

Other units of the health science center also see the need to better integrate dentistry into the health care team. Medical students have begun a rotation through the dental hospital, which Glickman sees as a positive step that can help future physicians see the importance of dentistry.

Some people have worried about an oversupply of dentists and a decreasing demand. However, it’s not that simple, according to Glickman, who sees it more as a distribution problem. “The need for care is absolutely there,” he said. Some people can’t afford it, and others live far away from the nearest provider. “We are concerned about the underserved and how best to provide them access to care,” he said. However, in some cases, people don’t prioritize dental care. Glickman wants to change that. “Oral health is so important because it affects overall health, from the digestive system to the immune system.”

Dentists can also help catch problems early, from oral cancer to diabetes. “We’re so much more than just drill, fill and bill,” Glickman said. “Dentists are an integral part of your health care team, and they will only become increasingly more important.”

— Christina Sumners

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