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Inside Dentistry
December 2015
Volume 11, Issue 12

What’s in a Term?

The importance of staying up-to-date on current dental terminology

Many clinicians and researchers have outlined the differences between ceramic materials, composites, and types of restorations, along with their respective indications, features, and benefits. The vast array of dental products and materials—and the terminology used to categorize and describe them—create confusion for clinicians. Dental practitioners are left to assess and determine a variety of factors, such as which materials to use for what and when, under what conditions, etc. Whether they are “real” scientific terms or created by marketers, the qualifying descriptors being used to differentiate newly introduced products from a previous formulation or version or those terms created to describe something entirely new can be confusing, misleading, and/or incorrect (Figure 1 through Figure 4; download a full version of the table for your reference here).

The Current State of Dental Marketing

“What’s happening in dental marketing is the creation of new names and classifications that wouldn’t have a definition or descriptor if one were to consult traditional biomaterials textbooks, articles, and organizations,” says Howard Strassler, DMD, professor and director of operative dentistry in the department of general dentistry at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry. “Many descriptors are part of product naming that includes plus, ultimate, ultra, and max; and universal and all-in-one, just to name a few.”

There also are such descriptors as nano, which seems to be tied to many products, and hybrid, a catch-all phrase for a combination of materials, Strassler observes.

“Marketers often distort or use terms that can have multiple meanings, and they don’t define their terms,” notes Edward F. Rossomando, DDS, PhD, MS, professor in the division of craniofacial sciences at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine. “In everyday life, most people are familiar with marketing phraseology, with terms such as ‘new and improved’ or ‘fast-acting,’ but these terms are deliberately used because they are ambiguous and have no specific meaning.”

Astute consumers will question—new and improved over what? The one before? If so, by how much? How fast is fast-acting, and compared to what?

The typical half-life of a dental product is 18 months, says John M. Powers, PhD, senior vice president and senior editor of The Dental Advisor. Companies remain competitive by introducing improved products and then changing the product name. In doing so, they often maintain their brand name but add terms (eg, Plus, Improved, II) to indicate that the product is new or improved. These improvements might include changes in packaging to make manipulation easier, or in formulation to improve clinical performance.

In today’s dental product and equipment world, many of the improvements made to restorative materials are not based upon clinical trials, but on bench testing, Strassler says. Years ago, improvements were significant, but today they are not as statistically substantial; yet, those improvements allow manufacturers to compare their products more positively to their competition.

“Manufacturers change chemistries and ‘tweak’ products, enabling them to show some improvements,” Strassler elaborates. “They’re trying to make them easier to use, but are these changes clinically substantial, and will they improve the quality of care we provide our patients?”

Powers observes that dental terminology is continually evolving as new formulations and novel packaging expand the uses of dental products, perhaps leading to improved clinical performance.

As a result, readers of dental publications may encounter the intentional “creative” use of ordinary terms in advertisements that imply clinical benefits that are not supported by evidence, observes Alton Lacy, PhD, DDS, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco School of Dentistry, in the department of restorative and preventive dental sciences.

“Thoughtful peer-review will catch most of these errors before articles are published, but non-reviewed articles often require an extra measure of scrutiny by the dental reader,” Lacy says.

Click on the Table below for a full-size, printable version:

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