The Digital Generations

By Anthony M. Puntillo DDS, MSD

Dr.-Puntillo-PictureThe majority of the U.S. Workforce today is comprised of three generations:  Boomers (1946-64), Xers (1965-80) and Millennials (1981-99), each generation with its own unique set of characteristics.  The American Association of Orthodontists (AAO) now reports that more than 51% of its membership is composed of Gen Xers and Millennials.  By virtue of their birth timing Xers and Millennials, including myself (1966), were the first generations to grow up with computers in their homes.  Although Gen Xers differ from Millennials in many ways, technology is now ingrained into nearly every part of both generations’ lives.  For those Xers and Millenials that also happen to be orthodontists, this attachment to technology includes not only their personal lives, but also their orthodontic practices.

Over the last few years, my blog posts have centered on the discussion of a “Digital Orthodontic Practice.”  A digital practice must include not only the management and record keeping aspects (paperless) of our offices, but also clinical diagnosis and tooth alignment functions.  In this post, I want to highlight the current opportunities for moving digital in the clinical portion of your practice.


The clinical care for most orthodontic patients begins with a diagnosis and a treatment plan.  Given that Kodak is now only a shell of the company that it once was, I think it is safe to say most orthodontic practices are now taking digital photographs, instead of film, as part of their diagnostic records.  The recent 2014 JCO study of Orthodontic Diagnosis and Treatment Procedures1 found that more than 91% of the respondents used digital radiography, 69% used CBCT either routinely or occasionally, 41% used digital models and 28% used intraoral digital scanners.  Additionally,  the American Board of Orthodontics (ABO) recently announced that all initial models for their exam must be submitted in a digital format.  While the JCO survey included a relatively low number of respondents (n=135), I believe the findings are indicative of the Electronic Health Record (EHR) movement in all of the health care profession.  This movement, aided by government mandates and subsidies, has now breached the threshold level.  The train has left the station.  If you and your practice intend to stay relevant over the next decade, you absolutely need to be utilizing digital diagnostic records.

Tooth Alignment:

As our profession transitions to a digital diagnostic record norm, some are looking to move beyond diagnosis to digitally construct tooth aligning appliances.  In 1999, Align Technology opened the door to digital orthodontic tooth alignment with the introduction of the Invisalign system.  The system at that time relied upon traditional dental impressions, but today intraoral scanners and 3D printing have allowed for the elimination of the impression procedure.  Whether it be Align, or any other current Clear Aligner option, a digital model (.STL) of a patient’s dentition can be captured with a scanner, the teeth can be aligned using computer software, and treatment appliances (clear aligners) can be fabricated by machines based off of the digital “plan”.  Furthermore, this process can now also be utilized for patients using traditional bonded brackets.  Custom brackets along with custom bracket placement jigs and custom wires digitally planned and robotically bent are possible.  In large part because of costs and the learning curve, the digitization of clinical orthodontic procedures has not yet been completely accepted.   However, as the techniques become more refined, we should expect the cost to include them into our practices to decrease and implementation by the tech savvy Xers and Millennials to accelerate.  If you are an Xer or a Millennial, and have not already incorporated digital tooth alignment into your practice, you should be planning to do so in the near future.  If you are a Boomer, and potentially less comfortable with technology, you need to consider if you can afford to ignore this change.

Creating an esthetically pleasing and stable smile, can be a bit like designing and constructing a building.  In a recent conversation with a Boomer architect friend of mine he described the digital changes his profession has undergone.  My friend reported that my office, built in the year 2000, was one of the last buildings he drew by hand.  All of his projects now are digitally designed using 3D CAD technology, allowing him to plan and visualize the end construction result more effectively.  The transition in the architectural profession took time and learning.  Change is never easy.  However, as my friend now approaches the end of his career, he finds the “old” way inefficient and less accurate.   Whatever generation you were been born into, I encourage you to embrace the digital change our profession is in the midst of.  I am certain a digital orthodontics will ultimately benefit you and your patients.

1Keim Et.Al. 2014 JCO Study of Orthodontic Diagnosis and Treatment Procedures, Part 1: Results and Trends Journal of Clinical Orthodontics 2014; 48:10 pages 607-630.

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