The latest gadget going wireless: the dental X-ray machine.
Patients hold a digital sensor about the size of a matchbox inside their mouths, just over the teeth to be scanned. They get a quick pop of radiation, which signals the sensor to take a picture. The signal travels over radio waves to a paddle-shaped antenna, which bounces it to a computer. The computer uploads the X-ray and within three seconds -- compared with about 15 minutes to develop conventional film X-rays -- the image appears on a monitor mounted in the patient room.
Raleigh, N.C., dentist Saba Jelokhani is the first in her state to install the wireless system, which was introduced nationally in February 2003 by Schick Technologies of Long Island City, N.Y. It's the only wireless digital system on the market.
"Now that I have the system, I wonder how I did without it all these years," said Jelokhani, 38, who had used conventional film X-rays since she started practicing dentistry about 13 years ago.
Still, dentists have been slow to adopt digital technology, in part because of the cost. Jelokhani spent about $100,000 on a deluxe system to outfit five patient rooms at her office. The starting price for a digital dental imaging system is about $25,000.
Digital radiography isn't new. The technology has been around in various wired systems used in dental and medical applications for more than a decade. Anyone who has had a heart scan, an ultrasound or an X-ray of a broken limb has most likely experienced digital imaging.
Most hospitals and radiology practices have converted to digital or are doing so.
"Clearly, there will come a day when conventional X-ray film as we know it is going to go away," said Dr. Robert Schaaf, group president of Wake Radiology, the Triangle's largest radiology practice.
The time savings digital imaging offers is only partly why it is so popular.
First, it eliminates the need to buy and properly dispose of chemicals to develop and fix film. Images are stored as computer files, so they don't take up storage space.
Second, it allows images to pass instantly from one computer to another, so that many different clinicians can access it at once -- not possible with a physical film X-ray.
Third, because the electronic process of digital imaging is faster than the chemical process involved in a traditional X-ray, it reduces patients' exposure to radiation. According to Schick, its digital dental X-ray system cuts exposure by up to 80 percent.
Schick says about 17 percent of dentists nationally use digital X-ray systems. Some who used wired digital systems complained that a corded sensor got in the way of some X-ray shots. Sometimes connections fail, forcing staff to try again.
Schick believes its wireless system will help speed the transition to digital, even though it costs about 50 percent more than wired digital technology.
Jelokhani said the convenience of the wireless system was attractive, but what's really wowed her is the image quality she gets with digital. "Now I'm seeing images I wasn't able to see in the past," Jelokhani said.
Instead working off dinky 1-inch square slides, Jelokhani now sees X-ray images that fill up a 17-inch computer monitor. She can zoom in on a particular tooth. She can make the picture lighter or darker to make a spot of decay stand out.
Better images also help Jelokhani persuade reluctant patients to fill cavities earlier, reducing the risk of more serious problems.