Dentistry Shakes Hands with Artificial Intelligence

Eric Pulver

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To center ourselves, we often say, “I’m fine. I’m pretty much perfect.” It’s hard to look at ourselves and say, “You know, maybe I’m not perfect,” or “I don’t make all the correct decisions.” So when we’re confronted with something intended to improve our performance, our first reaction may be a defensive one. “Oh,” we say, “I don’t need that.”

But when we do statistical analyses and studies, we learn the truth. We do need help.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Think of all the data and the speed of all the information coming at you––all the articles, journals, reports, studies, and papers. Think about how many treatment planning options you have that grow from the varieties of available restorative materials to the unique biological and systematic health characteristics of each individual patient.

You want to feel confident that you’re providing the best care to your patients. But it’s so impossible to keep pace with both the information that’s available and the potential range of choices at our disposal that it is really hard to justify our “I don’t need help” confidence.

I’m excited about artificial intelligence (AI) because it really can help us.

Machine learning computer vision systems for radiographic interpretation can open the door for the adoption of other AI technologies that have a truly transformative power to help oral healthcare providers establish a home firmly within whole body health and wellness landscape.

The Power of AI

These AI tools can assist us in highlighting data that in turn helps us determine a correct diagnosis, which is the first step in our patient care journey. Once we are familiar with these tools, we will no doubt begin to feel more comfortable with AI clinical support tools that are sure to follow––tools that will truly allow us to bring all the latest research and knowledge, which we cannot currently internalize, to bear on our clinical decision-making.

These systems will one day be able to help us understand our patients’ biologic resilience and phenotypic expression, while also helping us to predict their ability to tolerate and receive maximal benefit from the treatment we prescribe. Since maximally positive patient care outcomes are our prime objective, we really should be looking forward to that day with eager anticipation.

That means that today, when we’re presented with AI diagnostic assistance, we should probably swallow our pride. My pride in being an oral healthcare provider shouldn’t just be based on my ability to interpret a radiograph. If I can use a digital assistant that can help speed that up, and make it absolutely more accurate, more efficient, more transparent, and more standardized, and I can share it with my patient, why wouldn’t I want to use it? Because that allows me to concentrate on things like facially generated treatment planning, systemic diagnosis, getting to know my patients, and coming up with treatment plan options that are more customized to their needs.

If there’s a technology that helps, if we’re honest, we should get over the fact that a technology like AI, which holds real promise to help, is able to do some of the work I do just as well as I can. Especially since it’s actually been shown that neither AI nor providers work as well alone as they do when they work together. If AI can help me, then then it opens me up to doing other things better––other things that we can take pride in, like better outcomes for our patients. And not just oral health outcomes.

Beyond the Digital World

As we embrace digitalization and digital workflows, we’re going to build efficiencies for analog communication. Our ability to listen to patients, our doctor-patient relationships, will grow because we’re not going to be stuck doing simple tasks that can be automated. More evidence-based decision-making will flow from insights produced by AI systems. And once we’re there, the work we’re doing as oral healthcare providers, from hygienists to dentists to surgeons, becomes vastly more integral to the overall health and wellness of our patients.

AI’s ability to digest and filter unbounded quantities of data opens windows to the unknown for us. Tracking back to a systemic diagnosis could be the hardest thing we do, because so much of biology is a mystery to us. Biology is the big ocean, and we really don’t know what the ocean floor is like. We’re gathering information in this ocean and trying to figure out how it impacts our health, our wellness, and the treatments that we provide.

But because we don’t know what’s at the bottom, we struggle to incorporate what we do see into our diagnoses. It’s just too enormous a task take it all in. But AI has the capacity to gather information and sift through it for connections on a scale that’s far beyond what any human or group of humans could hope to master.

I doubt I am alone in noticing that any time new information linking oral and systemic health is published, we take it as a feather in our cap. In our hat, those feathers’ utility is more public relations than it is practical. AI will provide us with vastly more information of that sort. At the same time, though, it also will make it easier for us to employ.

Of course, when we talk about AI, what we’re really talking about is machine learning. And that word “learning” is key. The reason AI holds so much potential is that it represents continuous and boundless enlargement of knowledge, without forgetting, fatigue, or inconspicuous details being overlooked.

People love to point out that AI and machine learning make mistakes. Indeed, they do. AI can reduce waste and improve outcomes. It can bring transparency and trust. It can link oral health to systemic health. But it has to learn to do those things. Until it has learned, it will make mistakes.

Our responsibility—the responsibility of all oral health care providers, everyone that participates in a dental office—is to usher in this new technology in the right way, to guide it and nurture it and allow it to flourish. The sooner that we, as a collective, accept that role as stewards for the technology, the sooner we’ll stop putting those feathers in our cap and start using them to lift oral healthcare to new heights.

Dr. Pulver is chief clinical officer at Denti.AI and an oral and maxillofacial surgeon with 30 years of experience that he brings to his thought leadership and advocacy efforts as lecturer, innovator, key opinion leader, and member of the Dental AI Council

The Dental AI Council (DAIC) is a nonprofit devoted to helping define the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in dentistry through research, education, and thought leadership. To join to the DAIC’s effort, visit dentalaicouncil.org/membership.

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