It was just 14 years ago when a group of dental professionals came together to form the World Clinical Laser Institute. This group was formed to promote and share their ideas and experiences and to advance dental care through the use of lasers. Today, the WCLI is the largest group of dental professionals supporting the use of lasers in dentistry; with 19,000 members, the use of lasers by the dental profession has not grown as fast as many had expected. Today, in the US, roughly 7% of all dentists use lasers, which means that 93% of dentists don’t. Of the four medical laser segments we track (cosmetic, ophthalmic, surgical, and dental), the dental area is growing the slowest. Biolase, the largest dental laser system manufacturer, has sold over 26,000 of its systems to date, but the company has also lost money for each of the last 10 years. In 2013, the company lost $11.5 million. This year, just until the end of June, the company had already lost $11.3 million.
So what seems to be the problem with the adoption of dental lasers? Well it certainly isn’t their effectiveness, as dental lasers have been proven to be more effective and much less painful than traditional treatment methods for a variety of dental conditions. For example, when lasers are used to repair tooth decay and add fillings in a test performed by the FDA involving 1,300 patients, only three patients requested local anesthesia.
But while it’s clear that lasers do a great job in dentistry, getting dentists to adopt them on a larger scale has proven difficult. First, lasers are much more expensive to purchase than commonly used dental equipment, and many dental practices are small and can’t afford the $40,000+ cost for dental lasers. Additionally, in most cases, dental insurance companies don’t typically reimburse at a higher rate just because lasers are used.
The second stumbling block for lasers in dentistry is education. Most dentists are not trained in the use of lasers, so they often need to spend considerable time in retraining. As silly as it sounds, many dental colleges are not allowed to train future dentists on the use of lasers because of limitations imposed by the laser manufacturers which only allow their approved training classes.
Finally, it seems that the dentists themselves have done a poor job at convincing the general public that laser dentistry is better than conventional dentistry and that they need to seek out those dentists that offer it. If anything, the term “laser dentistry” might make those that are already scared of the drill even more apprehensive. You only need so much as to watch the latest James Bond movie to learn that lasers equal pain.
While lasers are not the rule when it comes to hard-tissue work such as tooth drilling, they are the standard-of-care for soft-tissue work such as gum surgery. Not only are soft-tissue lasers much cheaper to purchase, but surgical insurance reimbursement rates are much higher, making the payback period faster.