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Photo of Dr. Peter Virga looking at digital dental images

I regretted one thing when our practice switched from film x-rays to digital x-rays: I wish we had done it sooner.

To say that we gained return on our investment by embracing and utilizing digital radiography is an understatement. It has greatly improved our practice management, the patient experience and overall communication. Our investment — in time, effort and money — has paid off exponentially. More importantly, it is a value-added service that patients may not have experienced previously at other dental offices.

Digital radiography differentiates my practice. It’s an opportunity to possibly exceed patient expectations by being able to share their diagnosis in a way that many have never experienced before. If you want to be perceived as cutting edge to patients, you must be perceived as different from what they expect. Exceeding expectations is the hallmark of quality customer service.

There is simply no way to compare film-based x-rays to digital; it’s like comparing a Honda to a Porsche. If you’re considering the switch to digital for your practice, just take your foot off of the brake and make a leap of faith. Otherwise, you’re likely to be left behind.

Need for Speed

For years, our practice had been using film-based x-rays with the typical  darkroom setup in our office. The time required to take and process x-rays was oppressive. An assistant would have to take the film, change gloves, walk to the darkroom, put on new gloves, put the film in the dip tank or automatic processors, and wait … and wait. The major issues were the time required for processing and the quality of the film.

We built our current 10,000-sq.-ft. facility (Watertown, N.Y) in 2000, and shortly after, grew tired of the dip tanks, the darkroom and the inferior quality of film x-rays. It was time for a change.

Embracing Digital

While we had installed computers in all 14 operatories, and had trained our staff to use the computers and practice management software, we realized we were not utilizing the “digital” aspect of our practice to its full capacity. We were three quarters of the way there; we had all of the backend systems in place, but we were still using film. We needed to better use technology to help improve our practice and patient services.

We ended up selecting Schick Technologies Elite sensors because they offered outstanding images, are easy to use, are durable, and come in the same sizes as films. These qualities were top of mind for us, as we wanted technology that would enhance the patient experience as well as being easy for our staff to use.

Honestly, the transition was effortless. The staff was already trained on the software from using the computers in the operatories. The Schick Elite sensors are truly intuitive — simply position the sensor and expose. That patient’s radiograph is instantly available on the screen and automatically stored in their dental record. The Elite also seamlessly integrates with our practice management software. I look back today and wonder why we hadn’t fully embraced digital sooner.

Helping it Click for Patients

Switching to digital radiography has truly enhanced our staff’s ability to communicate with our patients. It affects everyone in a positive way.

With this technology, I’m able to show them what’s specifically going on in their mouths and educate them so they can better understand our recommendations and options for treatment. We can immediately go from a computer monitor to an LCD 32-inch flat-screen TV, where patients can very clearly and quickly see all of their teeth in a way they never have before.

This helps patients to better understand problems in a way that is not possible with film-based radiographs. Before, patients had trouble spotting problem areas on film. But now I’m able to share radiographs and photographs on a monitor, enhance their contrast and brightness, and add color or other effects to highlight problem areas that patients are totally unaware of.

It’s my job to give patients as much information as possible so they feel empowered and are able to make an educated decision for a course of action. Digital radiography helps me do that. My philosophy is instead of telling patients how healthy they ought to be and making decisions for them, we will try to help them understand their choices and let them make an informed decision.

Sharing vibrant easy-to-read images creates a more collaborative rapport between my patients and me. Instead of talking to or at our patients, we’re sharing information with them. They see it, they understand it, and they can experience it all in ways they never have before.

Every time I see a patient for an initial exam, digital radiography and photography can immediately differentiate my practice from others. It makes our patients feel like they are being treated at the right place.

Today’s patients are just more digital outside of our office. To be able to deliver that same experience is one thing that differentiates us from other practices in our area. With digital imaging, they are able to see images the same way they do at home. They have flat-screen TVs and use digital cameras. They share information more readily and easily. They don’t want to come into their dentist’s office and see a black-and-white film x-ray. Digital is what our patients have come to expect.

We have also incorporated Sirona CEREC cad-cam digital technology in the office to round out the “digital” experience. CEREC allows me to create a restoration in one visit using another form of digital technology. This is another aspect of value-added services; patients appreciate our investment in their health. These types of value differentiate you from the “same old thing.”

Another benefit of digital radiography is it helps significantly lower radiation exposure. You simply do not need to expose patients to previous levels of radiation to take an adequate image. I love telling patients this because it highlights what can be scary for them — people are afraid of radiation. Telling them about the steps we took to reduce radiation as a cause for concern makes it an easy conversation and most patients are amazed.

To summarize, the top ways digital radiography enhances the patient experience at our practice:

  1. Understanding: It raises patients’ ability to understand problem areas and empowers them to choose the most appropriate course of action.
  2. Comfort: It makes patients feel like they’re in good hands because we’re staying ahead of the curve and not using antiquated practices.
  3. Value-Added Benefits: In addition to being thought of as “high tech,” patients also respect that you are reinvesting in technology to provide the best care available for them.
  4. Safety: It significantly lowers radiation exposure and reassures patients that their safety is our top priority.

Think Bigger

By getting rid of our darkroom, we were able to transform the space into another operatory and hire a hygienist to be on staff here every day. We replaced the circular door and got rid  of a closet to create a dedicated room for an additional hygienist who works full time, over 200 days a year, seeing patients. The positive effect that this staff addition has made on our practice is tremendous.

Digital radiography has also helped our staff in numerous ways, including:

  • Having the ability to instantly evaluate the quality of the radiograph and reposition if needed.
  • Their time is significantly freed up because they don’t have to waste time using dip tanks and darkrooms. It’s as quick as positioning the Schick Elite sensor and exposing the image. What used to take us 10 minutes is now instantaneous.

Worth Sharing

Digital radiography has also helped us strengthen communication with other dentists and the insurance companies.

As it can be common practice to share patient records with another dental specialist  — or even an insurance company — you want to be sure you’re providing the best-quality images. Editing tools enable us to manipulate high-res digital images to highlight or note specific areas. Once you have that initial digital image, there are a number of things you can do to it to enhance it to best communicate  to your colleagues.

Digital x-rays are much higher quality compared to film x-rays, whether we print to share or send them electronically. The duplicate radiographs we were doing prior to digital were poor at best. If I have a transfer patient who comes with a file with copies of film x-rays, many times the x-rays are worthless because you can’t read the duplicates. I am proud of the quality duplicate radiographs I can provide for patients.

Don’t Be Left Behind

The time savings that digital radiography offers will be paid back very quickly because time is not something you can buy, it is intangible. If you have this technology in your office and it allows you a few extra days off every year to spend with your family, wouldn’t that be worth the initial investment? How about those days multiplied by 10 years? You cannot buy back yesterday. The truest value of the switch to digital is the value of time savings.

Everyone is going to eventually have this equipment in their office—sooner rather than later. It will be something that patients expect. We wanted to be on the front of the wave. In a short time, you will be left behind if you don’t have digital radiography. A film-based radiograph will be looked at as antiquated dentistry that used to be done years ago. In fact, the time quite possibly has already come. Everyone will be forced to adopt this at some point.

Educators I train with at Spear Education  routinely share digital images to facilitate learning for students. These images, along with the photographs, are crucial for complete treatment planning. Think of digital radiography as Internet marketing and film  like the Yellow Pages. There’s a reason the Yellow Pages are getting smaller each year. As advertising moves to the Internet, consumers use computers daily and it is second nature for them to see it used in our offices.

For me, it really comes down to being better able to share with people what I’m seeing  and educate them regarding their options for treatment. Ultimately, I want to help patients clarify their dental goals and explain all their possibilities in a way that creates total understanding. A digital platform, highlighted by Schick digital radiography, helps me do that.

Dr. Peter M. Virga has been practicing at Watertown Dental Health Group for more than 20 years. He earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery from Georgetown University School of Dentistry and has trained with some of the finest minds in dentistry today. He has completed over 400 hours of continuing education since 2008 and is a visiting faculty member at Spear Education. 

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