Coming Now to a Practice Near You
In classic science fiction, artificial intelligence (AI) often overtakes its human creators, with dire consequences. Present-day “smart” technology is much more mundane: Our devices answer simple questions, provide directions, remind us of appointments. In medicine and dentistry, however, AI is starting to have a real, positive effect on diagnostics, monitoring, and doctor-patient interactions. And Michael McQueen, an award-winning speaker and trend forecaster, makes a compelling case that the current rise of virtual reality (VR) technology and machine learning has today’s new dentists poised on the edge of radical change in everything from education to patient case acceptance.
Machine learning and remote monitoring: The new “digital assistants”
One of the first areas in which this change is taking place, says McQueen, is diagnostics. Machine learning, which uses a database of similar information—such as images that have already been identified as normal or pathologic—to compare new files against, is already part of systems that speed up radiographic analysis in many dental practices.
“This analysis takes less than a second,” McQueen explains, “and enables the dentist to make an informed decision about the prognosis or treatment options.” In fact, a recent Forbes article opined that this kind of technology might be most patients’ first encounter with AI in a medical setting, because so many dental radiographs are taken annually.
Another way in which AI is starting to augment the practice of dentistry is through remote monitoring. In orthodontics, such monitoring is starting to reduce the number of visits needed and improve the patient experience by making the process more efficient and effective. With a smartphone, a positioning box, and an app, patients can send photos of their teeth from anywhere at any time.
“This shift is important not only in terms of the technology we use, but also the philosophy we’ve got around how we engage with patients, because our patients, our clients, are more empowered than ever before,” McQueen stresses. “Patients have become consumers by companies using various social media platforms, direct-to-consumer marketing. Patients are now exposed to various treatment options even before they set foot into the office. Consumer demand for transparency, convenience, personalization, and customized care is pushing dentistry to become more patient focused, in terms of both comfort and convenience.”
Building patient care and trust through data
Customization is really the name of the game, and the more connected dentists and patients are by technology, the more AI can help shape care and treatment for individual patients. McQueen cites one example of this as Brushlink, a device that attaches to any toothbrush to give users feedback about their brushing habits. Not only does this help improve home oral care in real time, but users can also share their data with their dentist, who can then give them personalized insight and advice at their next practice visit.
“It’s been said that data’s like the oil of the 21st century: Wealth and power belong to those who can find it, mine it, and refine it,” says McQueen. “So the ability for us to get access to data and then use it and turn that into intelligent insights is so important.”
By capturing and presenting data in an understandable format, AI technology can also enhance transparency to build patient trust in a treatment plan. For example, some radiographic analysis systems highlight areas of suspected decay based on the level of confidence the system has in the identification. When this information is presented along with the dentist’s diagnosis and recommendations, it can serve as a kind of on-the-spot second opinion.
AI may also eventually be used to decrease patient anxiety, McQueen notes. One company has already received FDA approval for use of its VR technology to treat chronic pain in surgical patients, and research into its use for anxiety is promising.
The metaverse…and beyond?
“The use of virtual reality, particularly deeply immersive virtual reality, is going to be a game changer over the next few years,” McQueen states. He points to the meteoric rise of the metaverse in the past year alone. “A year ago, the word ‘metaverse’ wasn't even in the lexicon of most businesses and industries,” he says. “So, think about that, how quickly this has become just a part of the discussion.”
“And right now, the focus for anyone in an educational context is, what does the metaverse mean in terms of how we teach and train students, particularly from a medical standpoint?” he asks. The answer looks to be “a lot.” Although today’s VR technology is still somewhat rudimentary, McQueen likens it, and the metaverse, to the early days of the internet. “It [the internet] was clunky,” he admits. “It was slow. The discussion was, is this going to be a fad, or stick around? Should we bother building a website or not? I mean, these were the discussions we were having.”
“Can I suggest the metaverse is at that point right now?”
He gives the example of Virteasy Dental as a company entering the dental education metaverse space. Through virtual reality and haptic feedback, students can practice restorative, endodontic, and prosthodontic procedures. The system results have been validated, which McQueen cites as very important, and the efficacy of virtual training for students versus traditional methods is being studied.
It's a constantly moving target, he admits, particularly in the field of education, where it is natural to continue teaching things the way they were taught before. But the world dentists are graduating into today is a world, he believes, where AI and VR technology are going to be the norm, particularly in dentistry. Forbes concurs, observing that dental students need to become familiar with AI while in school to learn both the advantages and potential pitfalls associated with it because it will soon be an integral part of the clinical setting.
“The reality is, whether it was 1995 or five years ago, our ideas and our mentality can never get fixed in place,” says McQueen. “We can never get to the point where we think we've arrived at the winning formula. We've always got to be willing to think again.”