Digital Dentistry: Tooth Fixes While You Wait

Nov 3, 2015

Dental fixes are getting quicker as schools, private practices and the military add new in-office technology to create replacement teeth and crowns.

With a camera mounted on a rounded stick usually used to swab a patient’s mouth, a dentist can instantly see on a computer a 3-D image of the patient's mouth. Then the dentist can design a crown or other repair on the screen and a companion machine makes a tooth right in the office. That’s instead of sending off an order to a lab after making a traditional physical dental impression that requires patients to sink their teeth for five minutes into a gooey substance on a rigid plastic tray, often triggering the gag reflex.

“The patients like it,” said Dr. Thomas Kunkel, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Dental Medicine. “They don’t have to deal with two appointments. They don’t have to deal with a temporary crown. They don’t have to get numb twice. They don’t have to fight Oakland traffic twice. And students like it because they get their crown credit in a day.”

The CEREC (Chairside Economical Restoration of Esthetic Ceramics) machinery costs labs about $250,000. Early iterations of the machines were first available 30 years ago.

Oakland dentist Dr. Randy Werrin said back then he was "definitely opposed to it, because nothing fit well, so why spend all this money on this technology when you could do it better without the technology?”

In recent years, Werrin’s practice has purchased several of the machines. One patient, Barbara Reilly, has a few crowns from the CEREC.

“I was amazed at how quick it was, how fascinating it was, to see the dentist actually draw the tooth,” she said. “I was in and out. I think I went for a walk for an hour in between removing the initial crown and then the application of the new one. So it was relatively quick, relatively painless. It worked perfectly. And it looked beautiful.”

Werrin said technological improvements like this have meant that his lab that once employed six dental technicians who made teeth by hand can now run with just two.

Just as the precision of the machinery has improved, Kunkel said he expects CEREC’s speed to increase as well. The newest model available, which the dental school started using a few months ago, takes about 11 minutes to sculpt a replacement crown.

“The last generation, that took about 22 minutes,” he said. “Who knows where they’ll be with the next generation? They might be milling a crown in five minutes.”

In this week’s tech report calendar

  • The Carnegie Museum of Art hosts a weekend hackathon starting Nov. 13. Developers and designers are invited to see internal data to help figure out ways the museum can use tech to enhance visitor experiences.
  • And The Pittsburgh Technology Council’s annual “I Love It When You Call Me Big Data” event takes place Dec. 3. It’s a day-long summit focused on big data trends and best practices.