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UTHealth teaches students how to make same-day crowns

Photo of UTHealth assistant professor Debra Stewart, DDS  (Photo by Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth)
UTHealth assistant professor Debra Stewart, DDS, participates in a digital dentistry training session. (Photo by Maricruz Kwon/UTHealth)

If you have a damaged tooth that needs to be capped with a crown in a hurry, you will want to be seen by a graduate of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Dentistry.

The school recently invested $2.5 million in its digital dentistry program to make sure all students earning a Doctor of Dental Surgery or DDS can make same-day crowns.

Traditionally, doctors make a mold, send it off to have a crown fabricated, and then ask the patient to come back in a week or two to have the crown installed.

Today’s digital dentists are using lasers to make impressions of damaged teeth and tiny mills to make the crowns themselves. There are no return visits, no molds of teeth, and no temporary crowns.

“Over the next five years, there will be a huge transition in dentistry in which more than 80% of all crowns will be designed and milled in-house,” said Michelle Thompson, DDS,  director of digital dentistry and assistant professor at UTHealth School of Dentistry.

Thompson, who completed her general practice residency at UTHealth, said, “We want to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest technology.”

This is a win-win for the school and the dental community.

“We’re going to be able to attract more applicants with this technology. Also, our grads will be able to walk into a dental practice and perform these high-tech procedures,” said Stephen Laman, DDS, digital dentistry instructor, associate professor, and group practice director with the school.

In all, the school acquired 27 new laser scanners and five new mills. A six-week summer orientation session was scheduled for faculty members along with students.

In the training, a student works in front of an exam table with the upper torso of a mannequin. The student inserts a laser device into the mouth of the dummy and an exact image of the damaged tooth appears on a computer screen.

“This is the same three-dimensional technology that engineers use to design airplanes and cars. Light bounces off the damaged teeth. It’s then relayed to the computer, which in turn designs an exact replica,” said Laman, noting that this technology is formally called computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing or CAD/CAM.

Laman has been repairing damaged teeth for decades and said the CAD/CAM-generated crowns are more precise than those made with a mold of the damaged teeth. “We have been monitoring this technology for years and it’s at the point where equivalent or better results can be obtained,” Laman said.

Maria Loza, DMD, MS, who chairs the Department of Restorative Dentistry and Prosthodontics, is also training students.

“The move to digital dentistry began with digital photography, digital radiographs, and electronic health records. Now, we’re using this technology to make replacement teeth. In the future, I could see us also making bridges, implant crowns, and dentures with this technology,” said Loza, the Yun J. Ahn and Song Ahn, DDS Professor in Implant Dentistry at UTHealth.

Thompson said the school’s ultimate goal is for upper-level students to make same-day crowns in a School of Dentistry clinic.

Founded in 1905, UTHealth School of Dentistry was the first dental school in Texas and was a founding institution of the Texas Medical Center

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