Communication Technology Enhances Partnerships
New methods bring greater clarity and access to the information laboratories need
Joshua Polansky, BA, MDC
Now a 40-year-old dental technician, I entered the field of dental technology in the middle of a tremendous shift. I was a hand-trained technician and always fighting against the times. I adapted slowly, but I now realize that things did not really change that much. While the "evil" machines were supposed to take away jobs, technicians are in even greater demand today. A new language developed, workflows changed, and job descriptions were updated, yet one thing remains the same—the need for clear communication.
Even though much of the talk today is geared toward the CAD/CAM side of the laboratory business, it should be noted just how much evolving technology has improved the most important part of any business—the sharing and relaying of information. All business rely heavily on communication. Laboratories used to get pictures in the mail from clients with drawings all over them. At the time it served its purpose and worked very well as a way to share shade information, treatment plans, and esthetic requests. If a laboratory had many non-local clients, there were also regular phone calls with new patients to "meet" them for the first time. While this often gave the laboratory the information it needed, this method also caused frustration when communication broke down. The faster pace and demand for efficiency associated with today's digital laboratories have forced us all to adapt to new ways of both working and communicating.
Direct from the Client
Technicians who think they can just receive and ship work without interacting with their clients are in for a rude awakening. With the constant turnover of cases, a lot of communication is involved—from dates, shades, and parts to preferences, esthetic requests, and design elements. Neglecting any one of these can cause big problems. My early days were often spent ironing all of these things out during the daytime, leaving the actual dental work to be done at night. This was not efficient at all. Things started to shift with the advance of digital communication. Barriers like front desk "gatekeepers" and the lack of dentist availability on weekends often made the quest for information worse. Being able to reach out to clients directly for quick questions using a messaging app, for instance, allows the laboratory to get the necessary information at almost any time. That alone saves us technicians so much time and effort that could go right back into the bench, without disrupting the flow of cases. Of course, it is important to not abuse this line of communication, which should only be used with the most trusted clients.
Direct from the Patient
Similarly, mobile video conferencing plays a huge role with access to patients. With 80% of the laboratory's work coming from out of state, scheduling a Skype or FaceTime call during a try-in appointment really improves communication, including identifying what corrections were needed on a case. In the past, it was like a game of "whisper down the lane"; if the patient said something to the dentist about making corrections, the dentist would delegate it to an assistant to write the laboratory prescription. Having a direct line to the patient through a video conference try-in can significantly reduce communication errors in many laboratories' current business model. Plus, being able to address the patients directly gives the business a more personal feel, which can be a huge part of its success.
That said, there are some important practical concerns about sharing information on a patient. Dental laboratories should have up-to-date information on HIPAA regulations and compliance. Dealing more and more with digital information, laboratories must be aware of privacy laws and have their own protocol in place for sharing sensitive information.
Another tried-and-true method of communicating ideas lies in camera and video technology. This used to be a time-consuming process, but thanks to advances in smartphone cameras and their editing software, the laboratory can now send images to a client and have an answer in a matter of minutes. A quick picture on an iPhone can be edited on the spot and sent directly to the client's email or via a messaging app. Many times, issues with a case are hard to put into words without showing a client what is happening on the bench. By using a mobile video conferencing app, technicians can show the client and/or patient what is going on in real time and get their input immediately. Another way photography has really helped is that dentists are sending detailed notes or PowerPoints of the case to the laboratory. With images, animation, detailed bullet points, and video, it is a new-and-improved prescription method.
A huge benefit to CAD is the simple fact that it documents everything in 2-dimensional and 3D files. This alone is a huge benefit when it comes to communication. At any time during the fabrication process, the clients can be sent images of the case in real time for review—2D jpegs as well as videos for them to view the design 3-dimensionally. It is also expedient to use the TeamViewer app to discuss a client's changes, which the laboratory can make as the client watches. This helps alleviate many problems that used to arise with case designs.
Being able to upload pictures of patients and merge them with the CAD is one of the biggest advantages to CAD software. Now there is the capacity to have the "digital patient" right there in the laboratory. With digital communication, the more information the better, and having a digital patient or try-in has greatly reduced problems and the need for remakes. Using eLAB to do digital try-ins (Figure 1) allows both laboratory and dentist to see the case in the mouth before it leaves the laboratory (Figure 2).
The abovementioned tools and techniques are just some examples of how to alleviate the daily problems and struggles that most dental laboratories face. Utilizing technology to help better communicate with our clients has given our whole team more time to focus on what is important. The ease of communication allows a far better flow of information, which in turn helps our business flourish amid other changes. The evolution of our field is ongoing; we must adapt and go with the times, not against them. With advances such as face scanners, digital smile design concepts, and intraoral scanning capabilities from the clinic, our tools for gathering information will continue to evolve, but the communication they facilitate will always be key.
About the Author
Joshua Polansky, BA, MDC, is the owner and operator of Niche Dental Studio in Voorhees, New Jersey.