The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a well-publicized decline in elective procedures in other medical fields, but the dental industry rebounded strongly after initial office closures in 2020. Patient visits are now returning to, and even surpassing, 2019 levels.
At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated innovation within the dental industry, not just in the obvious COVID-related areas like sanitization and patient protection, but also in the wider use of technologies like online patient scheduling, remote bill pay, and even teledentistry. The combination of technological innovation and growing patient numbers gives providers the impetus to examine and adopt new technologies, and makes this a pivotal moment for our industry.
One technology that deserves particular attention is artificial intelligence (AI).
AI is beginning to have a marked impact in many other fields and industries. Complex regulations and oversight from governmental agencies have slowed its adoption in medical fields in general, but the American Dental Association (ADA) is working to ensure that federal regulations do not have a negative impact on practices and procedures and to expedite approval for AI-driven tools.
AI’s potential in dentistry is broad and is not limited to diagnostic assistance. It will also relieve dentists of many non-medical tasks, freeing them to concentrate on the work that they are uniquely qualified to do.
What Can AI do for Dentists?
The dental industry today is well positioned to adopt currently available AI-driven technologies. Dentists do it all – in addition to seeing patients, performing surgical procedures, and acting as radiologists and diagnosticians, they also wear the hats of business owners, accountants, administrative managers, and more.
The toll taken on dentists by simultaneously running a practice and caring for patients can be high. Dentists today are seeing more patients than they were 20 years ago, and though the cost of procedures has gone up, most reimbursement from insurance has not. Seeing patients back-to-back all day long is exhausting, and dentists have good reason to worry about making mistakes or missing things they ought to catch. An AI assistant lifts that worry from a dentist’s shoulders.
Many studies, both in the dental field and in other medical areas, have shown AI to be both faster and more consistent than human practitioners at identifying abnormalities in X-rays. As early as 2011, researchers from NYU Langone Health found that computer vision – the processing and understanding of digital imagery – could accurately find specific lung nodules from 62% to 97% faster than a panel of radiologists.
In terms of computing technology, 2011 was a long time ago. Because the performance of AI systems depends on learning from new data, the accuracy and speed of AI have increased considerably since then.
Typically, a dental patient has X-rays taken every 24 months. This frequency has important consequences. On one hand, it means that more dental X-rays exist than any other type of medical X-ray. Because AI systems are trained by scanning large volumes of real-world data, the frequency and ubiquity of dental radiographs provides ample material to learn from.
On the other hand, X-rays are usually taken in other medical fields when an abnormality is known or suspected to be present, whereas dental radiographs include large numbers of entirely normal, pathology-free mouths. As a result, a dental AI application learns to recognize the normal as well as the abnormal and is less likely to make false positive identifications of pathologies.
Oral imaging is the primary diagnostic evidence on the basis of which dentists prescribe treatment. Reading radiographs is a critical part of a dentist’s job, yet, paradoxically, radiology training is only a small facet of the dental school curriculum. As we all know, indications on a radiograph can be subtle and often ambiguous. An AI analyst, trained on larger numbers of radiographs than any human dentist will ever see, and incapable, unlike the human, of forgetfulness or inattention, is ideally suited to catch the subtle and ambiguous indication that may elude the human reader.
The purpose of integrating AI into dental practice is not only to provide, so to speak, a second set of eyes for analyzing radiographs, but also to help practitioners automate some tedious tasks. AI can assist on the business side of dentistry as well. It can identify business trends and flag areas of opportunity. For example, by reviewing the analysis of patient x-rays with the information captured in a business intelligence solution, AI can uncover unmet treatment needs in patient populations, assess the accuracy of diagnostic decisions, and qualify treatment planning and case presentation on a per-doctor basis.
These insights drive other data-informed business decisions, such as determining whether to invest in a dental laser or to hire an additional specialist if, for example, an unexpectedly large percentage of patients with bone loss is identified within a practice’s patient population. The performance of new associates can be evaluated to help determine when new training programs are needed or spot when office staff may benefit from additional support.
Taking analytical and administrative services together, AI software can have a dramatic impact on the day-to-day operations of a dental office.
What’s Next for AI in Dentistry?
As healthcare – and dentistry specifically – moves further in the digital future, AI will be able to provide assistance with many of the time-consuming tasks dentists do daily. AI is designed to support dentists, not replace them. By incorporating AI into their practice, dentists will be able to spend more time focusing on their patients rather than on the routine tasks – like charting, and operational process, and inventory management – that take them away from the work they’re actually passionate about and for which their skills are uniquely suited. A better standard of patient care will follow and will equate to greater patient trust and retention.
As AI tools make their way into day-to-day dentistry, we can expect to see an evolution toward predictive preventive care: AI solutions that not only identify immediate dental concerns but anticipate the impacts they may have on a patient’s dental and even general health in the future. Eventually, AI could be applied to analyze a patient’s medical record and, applying predictive analytics to massive unstructured datasets, identify previously undetectable health concerns.
An AI revolution is under way in every industry, but the unique conditions and characteristics of the dental enterprise put it in a particularly advantageous position to reap rich rewards from AI innovation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ophir Tanz is an award-winning entrepreneur and technologist. He is the founder and CEO of Pearl, an AI company focused on solving fundamental problems in the dental industry. Previously, Ophir founded and led GumGum to several hundred million dollars in global revenue by applying computer vision machine learning to drive and measure value for the digital media and sports sponsorship industries.
Ophir earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University. An established member of the Los Angeles startup community, Ophir actively advises and invests in startups and, in 2017, was named one of Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs.