Cindy Roark, DMD, MS, is Chief Clinical Officer & SVP at Sage Dental and a member of Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s Board of Fellows.
Compared to the medical world, dentistry has widely lagged in recent years when it comes to the adoption of innovative technology. Because there is still a cottage industry aspect to practicing dentistry, resistance to change has been a key challenge in implementing emerging tech into oral care.
However, the service organization model, as well as the pandemic, have both played a role in advancing the technical revolution in oral care. Thought leader opinions and industry data indicate that dental practices that ignore new ways of doing business and resist adopting the high-tech tools available to provide care could suffer the same fate that awaits obsolete wisdom teeth.
Artificial Intelligence Advances In Dental Technology
The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into oral care, such as remote smartphone scanning and image benchmarking, is rapidly redefining the dental landscape. In recent years, AI has begun to play a critical role in digitizing dental medicine, analyzing data, improving diagnoses and identifying therapeutic options that are highly patient-specific. By analyzing patient data using AI, dental care professionals can develop personalized treatment plans on a patient-by-patient basis to deliver optimal outcomes. This, in turn, helps to increase trust between the patient and dentist as well as lessen the time a patient has to spend in the dental chair.
Among the challenges that AI tech faces is an atmosphere of resistance fueled by dental professionals who may be likening AI to HAL the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. What needs to be understood is that the use of AI in dentistry is not going to take over anyone’s operation and leave its crew behind. While radiologists exist in other medical fields like oncology and pulmonology, dentists aren’t radiologists. Yet they read X-rays as part of regular patient care every day. Therefore, AI can become another powerful tool in a dentist’s tool belt—it won’t replace the critical role they play in providing care, instead serving to improve diagnostic accuracy.
For example, one type of emerging tool is software platforms that can process digital dental X-rays and benchmark them in comparison to millions of other images. This pinpoints for the dentist what oral issues a patient has while they are in the dental chair. By delivering a level of detail that the human eye cannot detect, image benchmarking has the potential to eliminate misdiagnoses, which are major drivers of patient mistrust.
Some AI-based technology has also supported social distancing. Remote smartphone scanning allows a patient to take images that provide exponentially more information than what can be seen on a standard photo image or viewed on a screen during an online dental appointment. To produce a picture of a patient’s tooth and gum health, AI scans can benchmark virtually every surface of each tooth against millions of indexed images. These scanned images can be used by a dentist to remotely analyze inflammation of tissue, gum recession and tooth integrity in sub-millimeter increments, which allows for a highly informed prognosis and treatment plan.
Teledentistry And Service Organizations
Another key technical advance in dental care is teledentistry, which became a critical go-to resource when the Covid-19 pandemic brought dentistry to a near standstill nationwide. Dentists who were previously under-utilizing telehealth—or not using it at all—became keenly aware of its benefits in the early months of 2020, when patients began perceiving a dentist appointment as a potentially lethal endeavor.
For example, when the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommended that dental offices close for all but emergency visits. Some dental service organizations (DSOs) used teledentistry to allow them to continue providing care when many other dentists had shuttered their doors. Teledentistry could be used to triage patients in need of emergency care. Even post-pandemic, it is being used for regular check-ups for orthodontic patients, allowing DSOs to reduce the number of in-office visits for patients and their families.
In tandem with the impact of emerging technologies, the service organization model is helping to usher in a new era in oral care. Dental practices connected with DSOs reap the benefits of being part of a larger entity with deeper pockets that oversees management and operations. This partnership gives licensed practitioners more bandwidth to concentrate on patient care as well as take on more patients. And among dentists in small towns and big cities alike who have a shingle hanging out front, the consensus regarding DSOs is that they are here to stay. According to the American Dental Association, DSOs will experience a growth rate of nearly 100% between 2018 and 2025 and will more than triple their current market share by 2035.
The Dental Practice Of The Future
As dental practices throughout the country continue to adopt innovative emerging technologies to deliver better outcomes and improve the overall patient journey, the tech gap between dentistry and the rest of the medical world will continue to shrink. In addition to AI, remote smartphone scanning and image benchmarking, other exciting emerging technologies include high-resolution intra-oral scanners, as well as in-office 3-D printing/computer-aided design (CAD) for making crowns.
Looking ahead at the potential of the wide range of emerging technologies that are enhancing treatment options for patients, it’s clear that the technical revolution in oral care will continue to impact dentistry for years to come.