How Wonderful is Dentistry in The 21st Century, Really?

November 2005

By: Dr. Scott R. Harden

How wonderful is dentistry in the 21st century, really? This question offers an interesting challenge for today’s dentistry. Is it possible after centuries of rudimentary dental care that still evokes anxiety and apprehension in adults and children alike, that dentistry has risen to a level that can actually permit you, the patient, to consider dentistry wonderful? Has the pendulum of education and technology swung far enough the other way to extend an opportunity for patients to openly state “I actually had a wonderful dental visit and appreciate the level of dental care being offered today”?

To appreciate where we are in dentistry today requires a historical view of where we have been. Dentistry has unfortunately seen little advancement for nearly 5000 years because of the complex issues involving hard teeth interacting with soft tissues, and functioning of teeth related to moving jaws. The earliest recorded extractions of “bad teeth” were noted by ancient Egyptians around 3000 B.C. The Etruscans of Central Italy devised clever pioneering techniques to replace missing teeth dating back to 700 B.C. that established a standard that was upheld until the 1870s, nearly 2000 years. In 1759, the designation “dentist” was first used. Organized dentistry began in 1840 with the founding of the first dental school in the world, founded by the father of dental education, a dentist named Dr. Harden, quite possibly a relative, and an interesting factual discovery as determined by this author. The American Dental Association was formed in 1859. The first functional and durable dentures were created by the Goodyear Tire Company in 1864. Professor Roentgen of Germany discovered “x-rays” in 1895. Dentistry transitioned in the last half of the 19th century from being a trade to more of a science. The 1950s saw three revolutionary breakthroughs that occurred in dentistry including fluoride added to the water supply, modern local dental anesthesia and the development of the high-speed water-cooled drill. Patients still complain about the high pitch of this drill, but this is a vast improvement over its predecessor, the old belt driven slow-speed “bump & grind” drill.

The last half of the 20th century has exploded with the introduction of new products, equipment and techniques. A partial list would include the following: tooth-colored fillings that bond to tooth structure, which makes the tooth stronger and more attractive; bleaching materials applied in the office or at home to provide a whiter smile; air abrasion units that use air blasts of small sand particles to remove decay; decay detection equipment that uses a laser-like beam to detect hidden decay; lasers which currently treat gum disease and will soon remove decay from teeth in the future; intra-oral cameras and digital cameras to provide the patient immediate high quality images of oral conditions for better communication with the clinician; computers to organize diagnostic findings and treatment plans also permit patients a concise form of communication; digital radiography that improves x-ray techniques; and implants used to replace missing roots, which act as a foundation for dentures, crowns and bridges.

The biggest change in dentistry over centuries has been our focus on redirecting care from reactive to preventive. This means that our patients have better dental health because of fluoride, sealants, better access to dentists, earlier diagnosis, and more conservative treatment utilizing the latest technology.

As we have entered into the 21st century, we are now seeing the introduction of great advancements in the patient customer services, an area important to dentistry. With new trends in spa dentistry, including chair massagers, paraffin wax hand treatments, DVD movies, music, nutritional shakes, etc., patients can literally be pampered in a unique way that they typically do not experience anywhere else. The additional benefit of quality staff to deliver these services to patients remains essential.

In summary, there have been extraordinary advancements in technology that have greatly improved diagnosis, treatment, communication and comfort.

All of these new technologies now make dental procedures much easier and customer services are available to make the visit more inviting for the patient. The scale is certainly now tipped toward patient comfort and patient satisfaction. As dentists, we are delighted with the opportunities we can now offer our patients, and it is hopefully clear that you, the patient, can actually appreciate your next dental experience. Congratulations!