Be an Inventive Hygienist
If you work clinical hygiene long enough, the following thoughts will eventually creep into your head:
- “Why isn’t there a product that does X?”
- “This product would be much better if it did X, Y or Z.”
I’ve had many of those thoughts throughout the years but, like most people, for a long time I did nothing about it. Finally, in 2010, I decided doing nothing was no longer an option and took action. In this article I’ll provide a brief summary of my story, then offer some advice for aspiring dental product inventors.
In 2008, I purchased an Isolite system (now known as Zyris), which provides simultaneous evacuation, retraction and a bite block in one disposable mouthpiece. It’s an impressive product, but the system is also relatively expensive—at the time, it cost $1,395. I bought the system with high but naïve hopes that my employer would see the benefit and get multiple units for the whole office. That didn’t happen. In my office at the time, I was working out of 10 chairs, and because I had only the one Isolite system, I had access to the system only 10% of the time. That wasn’t going to work for me, so at that point I decided to sell my system to a local dentist.
Fast-forward to 2010: During a slow day at the office, I decided to see if I could create a contraption that would connect the disposable Isolite mouthpiece directly to the high-volume evacuator (HVE) valve. What I created was cumbersome, heavy and not user-friendly, but it worked! I then excitedly dusted off the remaining boxes of Isolite mouthpieces I had in the closet and used my new contraption for the next few months. Even though the contraption “worked,” I needed something better. That’s when I turned to my friend Google to find help.
I found and emailed numerous companies that advertised “prototype services” or something along that line, but few replied and those that did said they couldn’t help me. Frustration was starting to set in, so I decided to take the 2D drawing of my prototype to a local machine shop/small manufacturer. I had no appointment or previous contact via email or phone; I just walked in. Within 5 minutes, I was talking to the CEO. We ended up having a nice conversation and by the end of the next day, I had a quote for four prototypes: $450. For the next few weeks, I tested the product and felt it only needed some very minor dimension changes. The product I had envisioned now existed, and I was actually holding it in my hand! It was a great feeling.
My primary intention in this process was not to create a product to sell. I just wanted to create a simple, portable connector that would enable me to use the Isolite mouthpieces at every chair without breaking the bank. But after posting a picture of the prototype on a popular dental forum, my primary intention quickly switched from personal use to sales. My inbox suddenly filled up with requests to pre-order. So I initially ordered 300 units from the manufacturer, thinking that would be enough. Those quickly sold out, and the product is still selling well. Some days, I still can’t believe I made it happen.
But what about you, the hygienist reading this article who has a product in mind and wants to act, but doesn’t know where to start? Unlike becoming a dental hygienist, creating a dental product and bringing it to market is not a linear process. I can’t just give you eight boxes to check off and then, boom!, you have a successful product on the market. With that caveat, I think the best thing I can do here is to throw out a few recommendations to get you started.
Check to see if your idea has already been patented.
Look around at Google Patents. A patent for your idea or something very similar to it might already exist, but don’t despair if it does. The patent might be expired, or you might be able to purchase it or obtain the rights to use it. On the other hand, if you find nothing, then you’re free and clear to apply for a patent to protect your idea (assuming you want to). One affordable source to help you file a provisional patent is LegalZoom. I’ve never used it personally, but I know a dentist who did and he was happy with the service.
Create a drawing of your product.
Ideally, a 3D CAD drawing would be best. If you have CAD skills, great, but if you don’t you can easily hire someone online. Search “CAD services” and you’ll find plenty of options. If you want to keep it real simple, like I did, you may get away with just a simple 2D drawing on graph paper.
Create a crude prototype yourself.
Even if your creation is nonfunctional, it will at least give you some insight into possible dimensional problems. If building a rough prototype yourself is not feasible then, like the CAD drawing, you can easily find a company to do it for you. And luckily, many companies can do both the CAD drawing and the prototype. Search “Rapid prototyping” and you’ll find plenty of options.
Get advice from other hygienists.
Many dental products you see on the market today were created by hygienists. A few examples include the Nu-Bird Suction Mirror, the Blue Boa and the Clip Mirror. If you have specific questions, reach out to hygienists who have been through the process. I’m sure most would be happy to help.
If you have what you think is a good idea and you seriously want to create a dental product, just do it. Take the first step, then keep moving forward. We all doubt ourselves: “Who am I? I’m just a regular person. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t compete with big dental companies.” Those thoughts will come; ignore them and take action today. You can do this!
Mark Frias, RDH, has worked full time in the clinical setting for more than a decade. He graduated from the dental hygiene program at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 2007. Frias, the inventor of the Kona Adapter, also owns and runs MarkRDH.com, where he conducts interviews, shares product reviews and writes about dentistry that is primarily focused on dental hygiene. Before entering the dental field, Mark served in the U.S. Air Force from 1992 to 2003 as an air cargo specialist and a manpower analyst.