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Dental handpieces: What to consider before you buy (part 1)

Aug. 12, 2019
Dental handpieces are a big investment. In this article, a dental repair technician shares what dentists need to consider before purchasing a dental handpiece. Plus, learn how to spot counterfeit handpieces and handpieces that haven't been FDA-approved.

Your handpieces represent a significant portion of your overall investment in dental equipment, and when operating properly, they contribute to a smoothly running practice. However, since routine autoclaving began in 1992, dental handpieces have acquired a somewhat undeserved reputation as being expensive and problematic. This article will explore some current trends in handpiece design and what to evaluate when making a handpiece purchasing decision.

Every dental handpiece is designed with the following characteristics in mind: power, head size, and quietness. There will always be a trade-off between cutting power and head size. The larger the head, the larger the mass of the turbine, which leads to more cutting power as measured in watts of energy, or torque, which is measured in ounce-inches. As a general rule, a larger turbine will rotate at lower speeds, leading to lower sound levels. The problem with a larger, more powerful head size is that it may impede the clinician’s visibility and access to areas of the oral cavity. One manufacturer developed an innovative way to provide better access to the oral cavity by modifying the angulation of the handpiece head to the body. The manufacturer's unique 105-degree angle allows the dentist to reach far back on the maxillary arch without causing discomfort to the patient. Additionally, to combat high sound level, several handpiece manufacturers have created different geometry on their turbine impellers or added air dams, which serve to channel the exhaust air more effectively to reduce noise. Even some bearing designs have been altered to reduce sound levels from the airflow around the bearings.

Handpiece manufacturers are always seeking to reduce head size but have been limited in the past by the sizes of the standard bearings produced by a tiny subset of miniature precision bearing manufacturers. Until a few years ago, all dental bearings were manufactured using 1 mm balls. However, recently two handpiece manufacturers have moved to a smaller .75 mm ball to reduce the actual bearing size, which in turn allowed them to design a commensurately smaller handpiece head. In these cases, the design is proprietary and the bearing manufacturer is not allowed to sell that bearing to anyone else. This represents an advancement in design; however, this can lead to a "buyer beware" situation: when a company uses a proprietary component, that means the doctor’s choices for repair service are reduced to using only that manufacturer, as no other company will be allowed access to those components. It is wise to inquire about the costs of future repair before committing and potentially finding out the repair costs are exponentially greater, only after it is too late. 

Most dental handpiece manufacturers offer their handpieces in a variety of head sizes to meet dentists' varying needs. A doctor can purchase different sizes, usually torque, standard, and mini, depending on the application, that have across-the-board compatibility with quick disconnects in each room. Almost all handpiece companies offer an option to try their handpieces before making a purchasing decision. Doctors' personal preferences in handpiece selection involve many intangible factors, so it is strongly recommended to try before you buy, especially when making a large investment, such as equipping a new office or simply switching to an entirely new handpiece system. If the manufacturer of the handpieces in which you are interested does not offer a free trial, run.

Dental handpieces are an FDA-listed class I medical device, and as such, they must go through a rigorous FDA-approval process before they are cleared for sale in the United States. The 510(k) FDA clearance is a lengthy and costly process designed to ensure your patients' safety. Legitimate handpiece manufacturers have to incorporate this expense into the cost of every new handpiece model they introduce.

Today dentists face two related threats when purchasing new handpieces. One threat is the growing number of foreign handpiece manufacturers who are selling handpieces that are not FDA-approved on the internet. These manufacturers seek to mislead the purchaser with red, white, and blue backgrounds; American flags; and false statements such as “made in the USA.” Another deceptive tactic is displaying text that reads, “The purchaser must be licensed to purchase this product,” which might lead one to believe the product is compliant with US regulations when it is not. Purchasing cheap handpieces that have not been approved by the FDA from foreign manufacturers is against US Civil Code, and it also opens the dentist up to tremendous liability, should a patient suffer an injury while the doctor is using a non-FDA-approved device.

A more insidious (and illegal) threat to US dentists is the sale of counterfeit handpieces on the internet. Aside from not being FDA-approved for use in the United States, a counterfeit handpiece is designed to closely resemble a real dental handpiece, manufactured by a legitimate and well-known handpiece manufacturer. The seller deliberately deceives buyers by illegally using the real manufacturer's trademarked designs, branding, and logos. The lengths to which these foreign pirates will go to copy the real handpieces know no bounds, as counterfeit handpieces become increasingly difficult to distinguish from genuine handpieces on the outside. We constantly hear stories of these brand new counterfeit handpieces lasting only a few weeks before ceasing to function, and there is usually no recourse for the buyer on many of these websites. Of course, if you see a $1,500 brand-name handpiece for sale on eBay for $200, it might seem too good to be true—because it is. The major handpiece manufacturers are trying to combat this menace, but there is insufficient cooperation from the originating countries. To avoid becoming a victim of these unscrupulous sellers, you should only purchase brand-name handpieces from approved or authorized dealers. 

Your handpiece is like an artist's paintbrush. With a properly functioning handpiece, you have the power to create beautiful smiles and transform lives. By investing some time in sufficient research before you make a purchasing decision, you might save yourself money, time, and headaches down the road. Don’t just listen to the salesperson. If you have a trusted repair technician, ask him or her the types of questions you would ask your mechanic before buying a new car. In the next segment of this article, we will discuss ways to maximize the service life of your handpieces after you make the investment. 

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Glenn Williams is the owner of Handpiece Express, an independent handpiece repair company in Round Rock, Texas, that has been in business for 25 years. Prior to that, he was a sales rep for Star Dental handpieces. He has been a speaker for the California Dental Association for several years. He currently serves as the president of the National Dental Handpiece Repair Association.