Inside Dental Assisting
Mar/Apr 2011
Volume 7, Issue 2

Digital Radiography and the Dental Assistant

These Systems Offer Assistants a Number of Very Notable Benefits.

Jana Berghoff, RDH

Digital radiography is becoming an increasingly common technology in many practices, bringing with it a number of advantages and opportunities for the dental assistant. Surveys have produced varying Figures for the percentage of dental offices using these systems, with recent data ranging from 30%1 to 58%.2 The technology survey that produced the 58% statistic also showed that an additional 21% of dentists planned to acquire a digital radiography system within the next 12 months.2

In fact, the pressure is on for the dental industry to implement these systems more widely. Federal regulations passed in recent years are strongly encouraging medical practices to adopt electronic medical records (EMRs) by the year 2014.3 These records will make a patient’s complete health history—including information on primary care, dental records, pharmacy data and more—easily exchangeable between medical offices. As a vital part of the dental patient record, X-rays will be incorporated into these systems as well.

Benefits to the Dental Practice

The increasing use of digital radiography will have many benefits for both patients and the dental team members. These systems have been found to be very beneficial for case presentation and acceptance, as they enable a radiograph to be displayed in a way that is much more accessible to the patient. As assistants know, a traditional X-ray is quite small, and not very impactful to a patient when displayed on a light box. Using this type of X-ray, a dentist can make a diagnosis of decay, for example, but it often takes faith on the patient’s part to accept that diagnosis without being able to see or feel the problem. Many assistants have probably observed a patient leave the office without scheduling needed treatment because they did not "buy in" to the diagnosis.

A digital image, however, can be displayed in large scale on a monitor in the office, enabling the dental team to clearly show patients any areas of concern. With this technology, it is easy for even laypeople to see an image and realize there is a real issue. Additionally, much like a computer program such as Photoshop can enhance a digital photograph, digital radiography systems give the dental team tools to highlight or spotlight problem areas on the monitor to better illustrate the problem for patients.4 Clinical software can also be used to recall past radiographs in just a few keystrokes, which can help demonstrate a condition’s progression to patients easily, helping them see their clinical history and recognize when a significant change has occurred.

The technology also makes a significant difference in interoffice communication. With traditional radiography, patients typically must wait for images to be duplicated and transferred between offices if a referral is necessary or the dentist is seeking an outside opinion. Using digital radiography, however, the image can be sent electronically as soon as it is captured. A dentist can consult over the phone with an outside specialist while the patient is still in the chair.

In emergency situations, digital radiography is invaluable. The X-ray can be quickly captured and accessed from any computer in the office. If a dentist is in the middle of a procedure, for instance, he or she can make a quick review of an emergency patient’s X-ray while still in another operatory. The doctor can also review radiographs from his or her office, as these systems provide more flexibility for when and where records are accessed.

The Difference for Assistants

Because dental assistants are typically the primary staff members responsible for capturing x-rays, digital radiography systems offer them very notable benefits. With a "direct" system, which displays the image immediately upon capture, the assistant can quickly make an assessment as to whether the radiograph is acceptable (Figure 1, Figure 2 and Figure 3). If an image needs to be taken again, the assistant can quickly reposition the sensor or make other necessary adjustments while the patient is still in the chair and in position. To capture a series of X-rays, the assistant can simply move the sensor forward without taking it out of the mouth and very quickly complete imaging for the entire mouth. Figure 4 shows an example of the digital sensors from the CDR Elite system (Schick Technologies, www.schicktech.com). With a traditional X-ray, the assistant must capture the image, then leave the patient to go to the darkroom and develop it. If a retake is necessary at this point, then multiple time-consuming steps must be repeated.

Another benefit to the technique used with direct systems is that the assistant is able to provide more continuous care to the patient. Without the need to leave for the darkroom, the assistant can stay in the operatory and avoid breaking the patient connection. This can be particularly helpful for patients with dental anxiety or pediatric patients.

When patients transfer to a different office or are referred to a specialist, digital radiography also spares the assistant the task of duplicating radiographs. As many assistants have experienced, making duplicates of a traditional X-ray is time-consuming, and often produces images that are lacking in quality. With a digital image, however, X-rays can be transferred to another office very easily, often by a member of the front desk staff, eliminating steps for the assistant.

Preparing Yourself

As these points show, digital radiography is a technology that assistants must be ready to work with—if not immediately, then within the next few years. While many assistant training programs are currently teaching students how to use these systems, those who have been in the workforce for some years may not be as experienced. Some schools, however, are making classes available to former graduates to help them learn the techniques used with digital systems, and other training resources are available from manufacturers and continuing education providers. Even if an assistant is not currently working in a practice with digital radiography, it is important to learn how to operate these systems in order to stay competitive in the profession and maintain marketable skills. A step as simple as spending a day shadowing an assistant in a digital practice can go a long way toward eliminating fear of the technology.

Some assistants may already be eager to implement a digital radiography system, but may work in a practice with a dentist who is delaying this step. In this situation, an assistant can still play an important role in advocating for the change and helping the practice move forward. One common reason that dentists hesitate to implement new technologies is that they fear staff members will not be enthusiastic about training and making the transition. By simply talking with the dentist about the technology and indicating a willingness to learn it, an assistant can make an important step in motivating the dentist to take action. To take a more comprehensive step, an assistant can even research the available technologies and gather opinions from those in other offices about the systems they have in place.

Serving Today’s Patient

Dental patients today are very educated, and have increasingly sophisticated expectations about what technology a practice should have. There is a growing patient awareness of digital radiography, and those who have seen it at one practice can clearly notice its absence in another. The speedy implementation of this technology is important not just for practices to stay competitive, but also to continue to provide care at the highest standard. The implementation of a digital radiography system not only demonstrates to patients that a practice is committed to staying current, but that the practice also values open communication and patient education. Dental assistants stand to benefit greatly from this trend, and have much to look forward to in the coming years. By taking the initiative to learn the technology now, assistants will be better prepared to help their practices successfully move into the future.


1. Brian JN, Williamson GF. Digital radiography in dentistry: a survey of Indiana dentists. Dentomaxillofac Radiol. 2007;36(1):18-23.

2. Levine N. Tech experts chart a digital path. Dental Products Report. September 2010:52-74.

3. American Dental Association. Electronic health record. Available at: www.ada.org/news/4306.aspx. Accessed June 21, 2010.

4. Parks ET. Digital radiographic imaging: Is the dental practice ready? J Am Dent Assoc. 2008;139:477-481.

About the Author

Jana Berghoff, RDH
Technology Marketing Manager
Patterson Dental Supply, Inc.
St. Paul, Minnesota

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