How AI is shaping the future of oral wellness
As technology continues to evolve at a rapid rate, what was once the stuff of science fiction is now a daily reality for healthcare practitioners across a wide range of fields. In the field of dentistry, artificial intelligence (AI) is not just revolutionising patient care, it is also providing us tools to create better outcomes for patients.
Put simply, AI uses machine learning to analyse, diagnose and suggest the most appropriate treatment options. This technology works by looking at new data and mapping it against the knowledge or similar data it has accumulated from other patients.
As practitioners, we do this countless times every day — drawing on our years of experience and training to diagnose a problem and then determine the type of treatment that we believe will give the best results. AI is able to do this faster and more accurately than any human. It also has the advantage of being able to compare new patient data with hundreds of thousands or even millions of similar cases — far more than a humble human doctor could ever treat and remember in their lifetime.
While AI is unlikely to replace the expertise of a trained healthcare professional, it has terrific potential to complement and support the work we do in our practice. Perhaps even more significantly, it offers the scope to transform the way we engage patients to participate in their own treatment pathways.
Digital dentistry and diagnostic radiology
If used correctly, AI technology can be a real game changer. This technology is already being applied to areas of diagnostic radiology with promising results. It can, for example, be used to identify and label teeth from periapical radiographs with a high degree of accuracy1. It’s also capable of detecting and diagnosing dental caries — in 3000 periapical radiographs of posterior teeth, AI was able to detect carious lesions with an accuracy of 75.5–93.3%2. That it can do so at speed makes these results even more impressive.
We know that oral diseases are among the most common and costly to Australians and the healthcare system. Many of the conditions that affect the oral cavity not only have a significant effect on oral health and quality of life, they are also largely preventable. The AIHW reports that 72,000 annual hospitalisations for dental conditions may have been prevented with earlier treatment3. AI technology helps us identify potential issues earlier and more quickly than ever before.
A long-term approach
What really excites me, however, is the potential for AI to extend diagnostic radiology beyond the walls of the clinic and into our patients’ homes. For example, we offer patients a complete oral wellness subscription program, which harnesses AI technology to offer guided at-home monitoring of their oral health, in conjunction with in-clinic exams.
Using their own smartphone, together with customised attachments and software provided by us, patients take a scan of their teeth each month and upload it for our clinical team to monitor. This allows us to spot any potential issues as early as possible; from there, we can either give treatment advice over the phone or recommend the patient visit our clinic for specialised care. This is complemented by quarterly in-person oral health visits.
Having access to regular scans is hugely beneficial from a diagnostic perspective. Just as important, however, this technology empowers patients to actively participate in their oral health management from the comfort of their home.
We form a two-way partnership with patients in which we are co-participants in the longevity of their oral wellness. Patient compliance is essential to the success of any dental treatment plan; giving a patient access to these tools makes it easier for them to stay engaged for the long term.
Reaching remote communities
These same tools also have the potential to extend the reach of quality oral healthcare to remote or disadvantaged communities. In my work with Darren Weiss and the Humble Smile Foundation, we’ve developed a technology that allows clinicians to use AI to monitor oral health in developing countries and territories.
Our first study will be in a township in South Africa, but the potential for this really is global. I believe it’s only a matter of time before artificial intelligence technologies make it possible for remote communities everywhere — including in Australia — to have access to some of the best oral healthcare in the world.
 Nguyen, T.T., et al. Use of artificial intelligence in dentistry: current clinical trends and research advances. J Can Dent Assoc 2021;87:l7
 Lee JH, Kim DH, Jeong SN, Choi SH. Detection and diagnosis of dental caries using a deep learning-based convolutional neural network algorithm. J Dent. 2018;77:106-11
 AIHW. Oral health and dental care in Australia. 2021
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