© Pop Nukoonrat | Dreamstime.com
Data Driven Dentistry

Data-driven dentistry: How companies can best use dentistry’s data

Jan. 24, 2020
Dr. Chris Salierno says there's a lot of data being gathered in dentistry. One might think companies that know how to leverage this data into better products will gain an advantage over their data-deficient competitors. That's not always the case.
Chris Salierno, DDS, Chief Editor, Dental Economics

Data-Driven Dentistry is an exploration of the new data frontier in health care. We’ll examine the devices that are collecting data from patients and providers and how this data can best be utilized to improve outcomes.

We’re beginning to gather a lot of data in dentistry, from software that can diagnose decay on radiographs to app-supported power toothbrushes that learn our patients’ home care habits. One might think that companies that know how to leverage this data into better products will gain an advantage over their data-deficient competitors. So, a company that makes a smart toothbrush will beat out a company with a dumb toothbrush, right? Not necessarily.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, “When data creates competitive advantage,” authors Andrei Hagiu and Julian Wright argue that data-enabled learning can help companies create better products. But those improvements may not give those companies long-lasting advantages in the market. The authors outline seven questions to consider—such as how quickly data can be turned into additional product value—when evaluating if a company is going to be able to fend off true competitors and build value for years to come.

Take the Google search engine, for example. One of the questions the authors ask is how quickly the marginal value of data-enabled learning drops off. In other words, will the company reach a point where additional user data ceases to help improve the product? If so, then the product has less competitive advantage as new entrants catch up to that data tipping point. In the case of search engines, which arguably have no end to how they can improve from user data, being around longer and being more popular offers a tremendous advantage. Bing may never be able to catch up to Google.

As the dental industry continues its excitement about gathering data from dentists and patients, those companies would do well to consider the seven questions if they’re seeking to beat the competition. If the user data isn’t as unique as they think it is, then me-too products could potentially swoop in and offer similar value without the years of hard research and development.

Align Technology serves as an interesting case study. Their disruptive Invisalign therapy was initially protected by numerous patents, which helped them maintain dominance in the clear aligner product category they created. When some of those patents began to expire in recent years, Align faced a slew of new competitors. If Invisalign is to remain the largest clear aligner company, it will have to rely less on patents and more on product innovation and brand loyalty. One strategy would be to translate decades of dentist and patient data into better user experiences and treatment outcomes. Data-enabled learning could make them the Google to everyone else’s Bing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add a critical eighth question to the list presented in the HBR article: Do users want the value that is being created by the data? There are few things sadder than a useless product feature. The article restates the increasingly popular sentiment that data-enabled learning provides better insights into customers than surveys and focus groups. Henry Ford is credited with allegedly saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” While customer feedback can offer insights that lead to new feature development, observing their real behavior can offer so much more. But, ultimately, if the customer doesn’t care about the feature then it doesn’t matter how it was developed.

This is an exciting time for the dental industry. We are in the midst of the Third Industrial Revolution and the pace of innovation is simply staggering. Companies are gaining new insights into how to develop software, hardware, and materials. If those insights are based on user data, they could lead to product features that not only create better user experiences and outcomes but also ones that build lasting barriers to the competition. 

Editor's note: This is the second in a periodic series from Dr. Chris Salierno about data-driven dentistry. The first examines BlueLight Analytics.

Chris Salierno, DDS, is the chief editor of Dental Economics and the editorial director of the Principles of Practice Management e-newsletter. He is also a contributing author for DentistryIQ and Perio-Implant Advisory. He lectures and writes about practice management and clinical dentistry. Additional content is available on his blog for dentists at thecuriousdentist.com. Dr. Salierno maintains a private general practice in Melville, New York. You may contact him by e-mail at [email protected].