Maybe Dr. Oz isn’t crazy… dentists could actually be killing people with their X-rays

Like most dentists I cringed when Dr. Oz started fussing over dental radiographs. He talks so fast and shoots out so much information, and some of his guests do the same so a portion of it isn’t always accurate. First the media gets us in trouble with mercury, then Bisphenol-A in composites, back and forth on fluoride and now it’s radiation…but maybe there is a reason to worry.

In my banned book, Confessions of a Former Cosmetic Dentist, I brought up the concern about our new ‘super-X-rays’, the 3-D images we get from new technology such as the i-CAT brand. These extremely sophisticated instruments are known to be the latest ‘must-have’ for surgery, implants and orthodontics. The question is, are they over-used and are patients being exposed to risky levels of radiation that could lead to cancer? The answer in my mind after doing some research is ‘yes’.

There are a number of issues related to this and let me start with choice. Dentists purchase these devices based on reputation, presentations, sales skills and endorsements. Naturally dentists cannot trust a sales presentation sponsored by a particular company to be unbiased. Popularity contests are also unreliable, so a ‘Dental Village Award’ may be more reflective of the company sales skills and market penetration that an independent comparative study.

What speakers choose to talk about certain brands may be affected by special relationships. It costs money to run around doing seminars, so many of us are on the payroll. Just because a guru purchased a particular brand doesn’t mean your decision should not be scrutinized. I suggest that if you do not already own an imaging device, you may have dodged a bullet. The number one thing you need to consider is patient safety and this will include choosing technology that reduces exposure to harmful conditions and using it appropriately.

At this point in time dental professionals have been ‘wowed’ by the technology, and they are shamed into thinking they are prehistoric without it. Rather than going through a comparison of the various makes and models that change with time, I will say you need to look carefully at radiation exposure and diagnostic benefits. The most popular machines may or may not be the smartest choices if you care about patient radiation dosages. I have done some investigations of my own and suggest you may be surprised at the findings.

On another front, I wonder if dentists are buying these machines with the hopes of snapping $600 3-D pictures on everyone they can for a fantastic ROI. Of course that would be part of any sales presentation, and while dentists are business people these items are not amusement park rides. There is no doubt that many dentists try to be first to have new gizmos with the hopes of appearing to be ‘high-tech’. This technology potentially could bite them and work in reverse if not used very carefully.

The idea of substituting a 3-D scan for the usual radiographic series may be determined to be abusive. An educated person may feel that the dosage of radiation is not worth the benefits. This would be particularly true if prior radiographs did not suggest any concerns that required intense scrutiny. My guess is that any dental professional that has the technology will try to use it.

In a related matter, there may be doctors that add a staff incentive for specific procedures, namely ‘how many expensive dental images can we do this month?’ To make staff develop new habits, dentists often use financial incentives tied to specific actions. I would caution anyone who even thinks about anything related to prolonged radiation exposures of the public. A disgruntled employee could make you look like Dr. Josef Mengele.

The overuse of ionizing technology is a concern and a dentist who has spent a small fortune could lose sight of responsible usage. I would bet that over 50 percent of the ’3-D radiation rides’ could be reduced if doctors really considered the pros and cons without thinking about the bottom line. Just because the risk of causing cancer is low doesn’t mean we can line people up and shoot them through.

Orthodontists are a group who have invested heavily in this area, and because they are exposing young children to radiation levels of significance it is important to consider the protocols employed. According to recent articles, many orthodontists are substituting a single high-dose scan for the lower dose images of a panorex and ceph. The practice of doing this is being questioned as is the use of ‘cone-beam tomography (CBCT) as a routine diagnostic modality—i.e., for every patient irrespective of malocclusion or other patient-specific factors—as some orthodontic postgraduate programs in the United States seem to do. (D. J. Halazonetis, Am J Orthod Dentofacial Orthop 2012; 141: 402-11, Smith, Park, Cederberg- An Evaluation of Cone-Beam, J Dent Educ 2011;75:98-106).

The same initial article cited above explains how the British Orthodontic Society suggestions ‘the routine use of CBCT even for most cases of impaction of teeth…cannot be recommended.’ So we can re-visit the idea that many new orthodontic graduates are being taught that 3-D scans are the state of the art during school, and naturally that would lead to an extra lease payment upon graduation.

Manufacturers are not stupid. They understand one of the best ways to control how doctors spend their money is to get them early…ideally prior to graduation. Even aggressive cosmetic dental education programs sponsored by labs are trying this idea. This means some of the potential liability falls back on the orthodontic graduate schools. Is a 3-D imaging unit donated to a college a smart idea? You better believe it.

Even if the 3-D images are done for patients at the same cost as older diagnostic records, the level of radiation is still a concern. However, there are other issues which include the fact that dental professionals do not have the adequate skills they need to diagnose the information in these advanced images. One study found that even after additional training the orthodontists in the study missed radiographic lesions at up to ten times the historical average for general radiologists (Am J Orthod Dentofacial Orthop 2012; 141: 459). The bottom line is if you miss something (and you will) you now will be held accountable. In the consent form it would be wise to strongly advise that the image be forwarded to a radiologist for interpretation after the ‘basics’ have been distilled for the practitioner’s purposes.

As millions of trusting people go through the turnstiles and line up for our profession’s futuristic diagnostic rides, should we be telling more of them they essentially aren’t tall enough yet? Or can we even be trusted to make these complicated decisions? Maybe not…so here’s one for Dr. Oz.

3 thoughts on “Maybe Dr. Oz isn’t crazy… dentists could actually be killing people with their X-rays

  1. It makes me worried that a lot of healthcare professionals are just in it for the money. I talked to my dentist gilbert az and he doesn’t think that seems to be the case with a lot of dentists in Arizona but it is very possible it is happening elsewhere. Thanks for the article! I love your blog.

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