Assistant dean for innovation Sompop Bencharit takes digital dentistry to the next level

Sompop Bencharit, D.D.S.
Assistant dean for innovation Sompop Bencharit. Credit: Zheng Chia 

by Celia Spell 

As the new assistant dean for innovation for the MUSC James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine, Sompop Bencharit, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D., FACP, plans to continue growing the college and the health system’s presence in digital dentistry and oral health-related innovation. 

Progressnotes sat down with him to learn more about his role and what he likes to do in his free time. 

What was your experience before coming to MUSC last year? 

I actually grew up and went to dental school in Thailand. And then about 25 or 26 years ago I decided to move to the States and go to the University of North Carolina for grad school. After becoming a prosthodontist, which is someone who helps with prosthetic teeth, implants and dentures, I got my Ph.D. and started teaching. After a long time there, I moved and started working in Richmond to start Virginia Commonwealth’s digital dentistry program. I created the digital center and incorporated that workflow into their curriculum before coming down to Charleston and MUSC. 

And what do you do as the Assistant Dean for Innovation? 

It’s interesting because very few dental schools have a position like this, and it’s part of a bigger vision of MUSC where innovation is more than just using technology. My job basically consists of three arms: technology in education and patient care; clinical translational research, which is tied closely to the application of technology; and continuing education. As we learn more about digital dentistry, it’s our job to teach others about its uses. 

So I do a little bit of everything! I teach in the digital dentistry residency program, and I teach in the predoctoral program. I have a passion for clinical translational research, so I’m currently conducting trials right now at my previous institution and will start working on some here very soon, and I also have speaking engagements and help create symposiums. 

So what is digital dentistry? 

The idea of scanning teeth to create a prosthesis has been around since the early 1970s, but the technology to really take advantage of that hadn’t caught up. Until the prevalence of 3D printing exploded over the last decade, creating prosthetic teeth for patients from scans wasn’t feasible on a large scale. Even eight years ago, most dental clinics didn’t have 3D printers, but now they do. Having printers available to allow for immediate prosthetic creation and scanning improves the accuracy of implant surgery. 

MUSC has actually been leading the charge in digital dentistry for a long time, and it even has a unique program where students can pursue a master’s degree in digital dentistry. It’s a competitive program with applicants from around the world, but it provides another opportunity for those wanting to learn more about the topic. 

What’s so different about our program? 

While there might be a lot of dental programs that say they incorporate digital dentistry into their curriculums, if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that they only teach students about digital dentistry. In contrast, we have our students learn it and perform it. And I think that makes all the difference. When students graduate from MUSC, they’re not just familiar with the concept of digital dentistry, they’re comfortable using it. Other schools offer a fellowship in digital dentistry, but our program is at the master’s level. 

What do you find exciting about digital dentistry now that it’s growing as a field? 

We have so much more control in the clinic with the latest advances in digital dentistry. Instead of taking an impression and sending it to an outside lab to create the prosthesis, we can print or mill it with our own 3D printer or milling machine. It’s so much faster. It gives us the flexibility of creating prostheses in-house or outsourcing to a lab when it’s convenient. Now everyone can practice dentistry the way they want to. 

Another way digital dentistry helps patients is by cutting down on costs. When we use outside labs, we’re having to pay the lab a fee, which raises the price for the prostheses. With our own printers and milling machines, we can also have our students practice more themselves. 

What are some ways you like to spend your free time? 

I used to love swimming and would swim 3-4 days a week, but when the gym closed in the pandemic I started baking bread. And I’m still obsessed with it; I love making sourdough. My wife was making her own starter 10 years ago, and I’ve just been getting into it myself the last few years. Sourdough is incredibly temperamental, and the same recipe doesn’t work in every climate. The humidity in Charleston has created another challenge for me to overcome with my baking. 

Another thing I love to do is meditate. I love daily meditations, and I love spending time with my wife and son. She’s a hospitalist at UNC, and he’s a sophomore in high school there.