Interview: Dr. Valerie Cooper, "Denture Queen"

Dr. Valerie Cooper
Dr. Cooper is a private practice prosthodontist with a passion for dentures. Called the “Denture Queen” by her prosthodontics co-residents, the name stuck, and her love for removable prosthodontics grew with time. Dr. Cooper presents a systematic approach to digital denture treatment which she has been refining since she switched to all-digital denture fabrication in 2015. Digital dentures started as a subtractive manufacturing process, but Dr. Cooper has been working on protocols for additive manufacturing more recently. Her mission is to help bring low-cost quality dentures to the world’s people using this technology. Dr. Cooper’s prosthodontics training and Master of Science in Dentistry was completed at The Ohio State University in 2009. She received her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree at The Ohio State University in 2006. Dr. Cooper was selected for Omicron Kappa Upsilon dental honor society, as well as received several awards for general clinical and academic excellence. Her undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Science in Biology, also from The Ohio State University, 2002. Research also has been an interest of Dr. Cooper. She began as a student research assistant in a lab which studied the genetics of cleft lip and palate. As a prosthodontics student, she completed a human research study in the dietary and microbial analysis of adults with rampant caries. Currently, she is a member of the American College of Prosthodontics, American Dental Association, and serves on the board of directors for the Dayton Dental Society. Dr. Cooper will be speaker and hands-on digital denture workshop instructor at #3DHEALS2018.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Valerie: First, I am passionate about dentures. I want to make excellent dentures and have been working toward that challenging goal for years. To make beautiful dentures conventionally, one needs to be talented and take a lot of time, you need to be a true artisan. However, I wanted to make beautiful dentures easily, quickly and using techniques and materials that are accessible to most providers. In other words, I wasn’t concerned with making the most amazing dentures possible if others couldn’t do it also. My goal is to help make great dentures for everyone, not just the people who can see me and afford my fees. So years ago my practice transitioned to making digital dentures, using CAD/CAM techniques and subtractive/milling manufacturing. A major change compared to conventional processing and a change that I believe will make dentures easier and therefore more accessible to the world’s people.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Valerie: Now that the intro is out of the way we can talk printing! I knew that progress was being made in printing materials for denture fabrication, but the materials weren’t quite ready. I first really contemplated printing when I was introduced to Jenny!! Over a drink, we chatted about the digital manufacturing of dentures. As I told her the process and my goals for dentures, how I wanted to make dentures easier, faster, and more affordable I started listening to my own words. What technology is possibly faster, more forgiving, less costly, and spreading like fire? I decided to learn more about (3D) printing and how it was developing in my world….of dentures.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey in 3D printing? This can be a mentor, a patient, a celebrity, anyone basically. You can name more than one as well.

Valerie: Patients without any teeth truly have a disability. It is very hard to wear dentures, but often dentures are the only treatment they can afford. As a specialist in making dentures I can often help those with the worst conditions, but I have higher fees than most. My inspiration comes from the many patients I regularly encounter referred to me who simply cannot afford the dentures I offer. For years I have held an annual event making dentures for free in my community. The first two years we conventionally processed dentures, for two more years we digital manufactured them, and this year I HOPE to print them.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work?

Valerie: My main motivation in the denture journey is my own insane curiosity, stubbornness, and dedication. When I am fascinated with a topic I must think about it, express it as art, write about it, pursue new methods, talk endlessly to people about it, and try every tool for it. This is just who I am.

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions?

Valerie: The biggest obstacle for what I do is actually working with denture patients. Unlike many other types of dentistry, patients needing dentures can be challenging. Everyone in dentistry can recall the denture patients who have made them miserable. Many have vowed to never make dentures again after a bad experience. The problem is that dentures are hard to wear and not very functional and patients often have too high of expectations no matter what you do. I do not claim to have solved this problem and still struggle sometimes. I am not gifted with “people skills” but have found a way to make dentures without the stress and heartache caused by denture failures. My solution is two parts. The first part relates greatly to 3D printing. When making dentures conventionally, the typical process takes possibly five or six appointments, with a high lab fee, with many tedious steps that cannot be easily corrected. Can you see the benefit of being able to make dentures faster, easier, and less costly? This means that if you have a difficult denture patient the very worst outcome is you can simply return their money and move on, so much easier than when heavily invested. Less stress and less fear. The second part of my solution was a mind shift change. I lived with my grandmother who had dementia during the last year of her life. That experience taught me many things, but importantly, I discovered that many of the personality changes I saw in her, many of her frustrating behaviors were exactly what I saw in my difficult denture patients. While not all difficult denture patients have dementia, it is interesting how much we are learning about the connection with edentulism. What I learned is that patients behave the way they do because that is just what their brain makes them do. It opened my eyes to the behaviors that I used to be so offended by. That is just how some people’s brains are and I am there to try to help if I can. Thank you to my dear grandmother for that lesson.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Valerie: Currently, we are sitting on the edge of a radical transformation of the denture process from handmade products to engineered machine made devices. Despite having had digital methods for denture fabrication for years, few dentures are actually made with the technology today. I feel that is because the current methods rely on relatively costly services and are poorly understood and accepted. The good news is that the leaders in manufacturing digital dentures are already incorporating printing into their existing product offerings making a seamless transition. The challenge here is that I do not simply want to make cheaper, easier, and faster dentures. I want to make excellent dentures better than ever before, cheaper, easier, and faster. I want to merge the best of the classic techniques and knowledge into easily printed devices. This is the challenge. Most dental providers do not feel comfortable with their denture skills, many experienced denture technicians are retiring and not being replaced, many dental schools are reducing the hours of denture education. So if I want to bring up the level of quality with these new dentures I need a solution. To me, the solution is (surprise) technology. I have always been a collector of data and I think using data collection is a solution. For example, we could use algorithms to assist in denture tooth placement based on computer analysis of patient files. We could load facial scans into software and show the provider several proposed designs generated for ideal esthetics. We could use tracking of the patients’ jaw movements to shape the teeth for ideal function. The best news is that all of these solutions are already starting. We have the technology to do this.

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