Technology has increasingly played a major role in making dental care safer and comfortable for the patient. Prior technological innovations include developing high-speed cutting instruments that are highly efficient for restoring decayed teeth and advanced imaging technologies that drastically reduced dental procedure time from multiple to single appointments. However, dentistry continues to struggle with improving access to care and reducing high dental care costs.
Today, dentistry is on the cusp of an information revolution with the potential to transform the delivery of dental care. Dental informatics plays a pivotal role in enabling this change to ensure dental care is both accessible and affordable to all. This could be driven through: informatics initiatives such as data analytics to assess treatment outcomes; design of clinical systems to support patient care, and to facilitate care coordination and communication across multiple care providers; and leveraging digital media to educate and empower patients to make the right decisions.
The last decade has seen a rapid adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) by dental practices and academic organizations in the US. Today, more than 70 percent of US dental practices manage at least some clinical information electronically and at least 15 percent of them maintain complete paperless records. Furthermore, about 80 percent of US dental schools use EHRs for patient care. This transition from paper to digital records is producing massive amounts of data that could be used to develop evidence-based preventive management guidelines for various oral diseases, as well as assess treatment outcomes. Moreover, the clinical use of dental EHRs for at least 10 years has raised users’ awareness of the need to improve these systems to support and enhance both their work and the quality of patient care.
While medicine has a long and rich history of applying informatics for research and clinical purposes, in dentistry, clinical informatics is still in its infancy. A key reason is the lack of of well-educated and qualified informaticians working in the field of dental informatics to achieve these goals. As a result, most dental academic organizations, HMO networks and dental EHR vendors have information technology professionals, yet very few qualified informaticians. Dental schools also have limited personnel to educate pre-doctoral students and residents about informatics. Only a handful of health informatics graduate training programs exist, which either have dental informaticians, or apply informatics principles and methods to dentistry.
Recently, awareness and interest in dental informatics has grown, largely due to the increasing adoption of dental EHRs and the Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on changing provider payment mechanisms from a volume-based to a value-based approach. The opportunity to utilize dental informatics to transform dental care, and redefine dentistry’s role within the healthcare system has finally arrived. This is a defining moment for dental informatics, which we would do well to take advantage of.
About the Contributor
Dr. Thankam Thyvalikakath, DMD, MDS, PhD is an Associate Professor and Director of the Dental Informatics core and Quality Improvement at the Indiana University (IU) School of Dentistry, Indianapolis, IN. As core director, she is creating an informatics program associated with research, teaching, information technology service, and clinical care. She is also a research scientist at the Center for Biomedical Informatics (CBMI), Regenstrief Institute, Indianapolis and an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Bio-Health Informatics, School of Informatics & Computing, Indiana University, Indianapolis. During the last ten years, Dr. Thyvalikakath has been involved primarily in human-computer interaction research and cognitive studies pertaining to dentistry. She is the recipient of two career development awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Currently, she is working on a National Dental Practice-Based Research Network study funded through the NIH to explore the feasibility of using dental electronic health data (EHR) data from private practices to evaluate treatment outcomes and for clinical research.