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February 23, 1999

The other day at the dentist's office, I was reminded once again of just how much we are leaning on that electronic marvel, the computer, to improve our lives and solve problems we didn't even know we had. My time in the dentist's chair was necessitated not by an emergency, thank goodness, but merely a routine semi-annual visit. This often begins with a few minutes of scrutiny by the X-ray tube, a minor ordeal at best but one that consumes quite a few minutes. Film is produced in negative form to show possible cavities or other potential problems. The procedure enables the hygienist and the dentist to make an evaluation of the patient's teeth and gums and then decide how much pain and/or discomfort, if any, will be inflicted by that array of tools on the tray nearby.

Most modern dentistry really is virtually painless, but I confess that the anticipation (or fear) of drilling is sometimes difficult for me to bear. I am inclined to become very tense when I hear the start of those high-pitched, tiny grinding wheels and realize that my oral cavity, with all its nerve ends a-tingle, may soon play host to them. Reflexes are called into action. My neck, shoulders and upper back are quickly welded into a rigid mass that becomes proportionately firmer as the small, rapidly rotating wheels draw nearer.

But most of the above is irrelevant to what I started to relate in this column. On this trip, as I settled into the reclining chair, the hygienist pointed to one of those small laptop computers on a stand nearby. "That has replaced the conventional X-ray method," she said. "It provides a picture a lot faster and requires much less radiation." Actually it requires only one-tenth of the intensity used in the older method, and that is a safety feature worth noting for both the patient and the hygienist. The picture is digitalized and displayed instantly on the laptop computer screen at the patient's elbow. Then, if desired, it can be rotated to show other perspectives of the teeth and gums. Or the operator can zoom in to look at an enlarged image of just a single tooth. The picture is stored digitally. No film is used, but a printout can be made if needed.

Luckily, none of this high-tech inspection showed any abnormalities inside my mouth, so after a thorough cleaning I was sent on my way with congratulations and the usual but very practical admonition: "Don't forget to floss at least once each day." I can remember when the dentist also handed me a balloon at that point, but that's another story from days gone by. Long before the computer era came along.