Dental Clinic High Tech Eco Friendly

By Lyla D. Hamilton, Boulder County Business Report
May 29, 2009

LAFAYETTE – Gordon West combines advanced dental technologies with green business practices. “We’re setting new standards of care for our patients and our environment,” he said.

His practice, Boulder County Smiles PC, serves about 2,000 patients ranging in age from 5 to 95.

Services include cosmetic dentistry, implants and sedation dentistry.

West has engaged in environmentally friendly dentistry from the inception of his practice nearly a decade ago. Others may soon follow suit. The newly formed Eco-Dentistry Association reports that a typical solo dental practice can save $50,000 in annual operating expenses by adopting environmentally aware approaches.

West was quick to move from traditional X-ray films to digital radiographs. “This exposes patients to 90 percent less radiation and at the same time allows better diagnosis,” he explained. “The digital images show you more.”

A clinician can enlarge digital images, change the contrast or add color enhancements. In addition to facilitating diagnosis, the images help patients understand the dentist’s recommendations.

The clinic’s 2004 switch to digital imaging also reduced its impact on local wastewater treatment facilities. Processing traditional film required a chemical bath, West noted, “and every week when you cleaned out the chemicals, they’d go down the drain. That’s not a good thing for the environment.”

Mercury, used in older amalgam fillings, also posed environmental concerns West wanted to address. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dentists discharge about 3.7 tons of mercury into municipal wastewater treatment plants annually.

In his clinic, West voluntarily installed amalgam separators that capture the pollutant before it can enter the wastewater system. Every six to 12 months, a dental supply company replaces each filter and safely disposes of the accumulated mercury.

EPA research indicates that separators, in conjunction with traps and vacuum pump filters, can capture more than 95 percent of the mercury discharged from a dental facility.

West has also turned to new technologies to create crowns and other dental restorations. The traditional process involves fabricating a physical mold to map the topography of patients’ teeth and then a lengthy wait while a dental laboratory fashions a crown.

Now, an optical camera captures a digital impression. Precision milling on site forms the crown. In a single appointment, the dentist can create, place, stain and bond a crown.

Lasers rather than drills remove cavities. This reduces the need for anesthesia, diminishes loss of healthy structure and better prepares the tooth surface for bonding.

Lasers also provide an alternative to traditional methods of cleaning teeth. “Older techniques leave behind a bacterial film,” West said, “but lasers kill the bacteria. The process is basically painless and the patient heals faster.”

For treatment of soft tissue concerns, lasers sometimes replace scalpels and sutures. “Procedures are bloodless,” West noted, “and very comfortable.”

His dental practice also uses DNA testing. “In severe cases of periodontal disease, we take a swab and determine the DNA of the bacteria causing the problem,” West said. “Then we can target an antibiotic to the specific bacteria.”

Among the technologies West has recently adopted is a cone beam computed tomography scan that produces a three-dimensional representation of the patient’s jawbone, joints and teeth. This diagnostic tool facilitates precise insertion of implants that replace teeth lost to injury or decay.

Dental implants can help patients who have problems chewing, sneezing or smiling, West said. He pointed out that the scans can reduce the duration of surgery to minutes rather than the hour or more required with conventional images. “Patients typically have no post-operative pain,” he added.

Pamela DeBellis, an engineer with Mackie DeBellis Associates LLC, a Boulder-based marketing consulting firm focused on medical devices, stressed the importance of this imaging tool for planning dental surgery. “Precise placement of a dental implant is crucial,” she noted. “To reduce risk, the dentist needs to avoid involving the nerves in the lower jaw and the sinuses and the nose in the upper jaw.”

Along with the latest technologies, West also seeks to institute green business practices. A current initiative focuses on reducing the clinic’s consumption of paper.

“Since September 2008, we’ve been providing email reminders of appointments. Patients can confirm their appointment by pressing button,” West said.

By the end of the year, postcard reminders of appointments will no longer be an option.

“We also want to make our charts digital rather than paper,” West said. “Bbut that takes a lot of doing.” One constraint is the software currently available to manage dental practices. “It doesn’t offer a seamless transition from paper to digital,” he explained. “We’ve had to create our own templates. We progress in baby steps.”