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Q&A: AI is set to disrupt dentistry and improve patient care

The root of the problem — no pun intended — is that we haven’t had an objective standard for oral health decisions. AI can help.

Navy Dentist Lt. Benjamin Anderson (Seated left) and Dental Technician Lennard Henry perform routine procedure on a patient. Image by U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer under Creative Commons licence 4.0
Navy Dentist Lt. Benjamin Anderson (Seated left) and Dental Technician Lennard Henry perform routine procedure on a patient. Image by U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer under Creative Commons licence 4.0

How is artificial intelligence influencing dentistry? To find out Digital Journal spoke with Dr. Teresa Dolan, Chief Dental Officer at Overjet, to consider AI’s impact on patient care, diagnostics, accessibility, and tomorrow’s healthcare landscape.

Digital Journal: How is artificial intelligence currently being utilized in dentistry, and what specific applications are making a significant impact on patient care?

Teresa Dolan: Before we talk about AI, we need to recognize that dentists are among the most highly trained professionals on the planet. There is simply no substitute for the expert, personalized care that doctors provide — and there never will be.

But for decades, the dental profession itself has faced a fundamental challenge: patients only accept about 50 percent of the treatments that their dentists recommend. The root of the problem — no pun intended — is that we haven’t had an objective standard for oral health decisions. Two different dentists often have two different interpretations of the same X-ray, along with other patient information. Meanwhile, the reviewer who approves the insurance claim uses separate criteria for determining if treatment is medically necessary.

The result is a less-than-ideal experience for patients. They can’t understand their own X-rays, they can’t be confident that they need a specific treatment, and they can’t know whether insurance will pay for it.

The good news is that artificial intelligence is already solving this problem. The latest dental AI technology has learned from millions of real X-rays — thousands of lifetimes of experience — to precisely detect, outline, and measure oral diseases, with a level of precision that wasn’t possible before. This tech has introduced by far the most rigorous standard that quantifies oral health, a standard which is now shared by dental practices, insurers, and universities.

Ultimately, though, the biggest impact of AI is on the patient side. AI tools let patients see what their dentist sees for the first time — because they highlight key features of X-rays with exact outlines, in bright colours. It is easily the most dramatic improvement in patient education in my lifetime.

DJ: In what ways does AI contribute to diagnostic processes and treatment planning, and how does it enhance the accuracy and efficiency of these tasks?

Dolan: So much of our oral health comes down to getting the right care, at the right time. Already, AI is helping dentists increase not only their accuracy, but their efficiency, too. In the clinical studies we commissioned to get our FDA clearances, for example, almost every single dentist was more accurate in diagnosing cavities, bone levels, and calculus, when using AI.

The greater productivity and organization that AI provides are just as essential. Dental practices can be extremely busy — handling hundreds or thousands of patients — which means it’s difficult to make sure everyone gets the care they need. Artificial intelligence can analyse X-rays in seconds, so that dentists can work fast without compromising quality of care. On a longer timescale, the latest AI tools also help dentists monitor their patients’ pathologies and identify care opportunities, across their entire practice.

At the same time, it’s misleading to give the credit only to AI.

What we’re witnessing with AI is really the culmination of countless advancements in our medical knowledge — by actual dentists. As a profession, we understand how to detect and treat oral diseases better today than ever before in history. The sheer complexity of modern dental care has given rise to specialists, from periodontists to prosthodontists, who spend their careers focused on just one aspect of the field.

DJ: What is Overjet’s contribution?

Dolan: Technology like Overjet is really about using AI to capture what these top specialists know, in order to make the cutting-edge of the profession available to every doctor and patient. Of course, unlike people, AI software can analyse an X-ray in seconds and give exact measurements of pathologies like alveolar bone levels — down to a fraction of a millimetre. But the foundation is, and always will be, human knowledge.

You can see this approach in the way our clinical studies work. The typical study has two phases: first, specialists will analyse X-rays to find instances of a certain issue, such as cavities, about which they’re an expert. Then, general dentists will review the same X-rays — both with and without AI. Ultimately, the goal is to give everyone access to the best possible information, so we can make informed decisions.

DJ: In terms of accessibility and inclusivity, how can AI be leveraged to bridge healthcare disparities and ensure that advancements in technology benefit a wide range of populations, including those in underserved or remote communities?

Dolan: That’s a very important question. In 2022, the World Health Organization actually published a comprehensive report on the state of oral health around the globe. It found that 3.5 billion people — almost half of all human beings — suffer from oral diseases, with a disproportionate percentage living in lower-income nations. When left untreated, many of these diseases can lead to serious health problems, such as serious infections, worsening of diabetes, and more advanced stages of cancer.

Needless to say, we’re not close to a world where everyone has access to high-quality dental care. Yet there’s no doubt that technology, and specifically AI, must be part of the solution. AI-powered software has the potential to offer every patient the expertise of the world’s most elite specialists, in the same way that the internet is democratizing education from elite universities.

In short, AI is necessary but not sufficient to bring better care to those who need it.

DJ: What does the future hold for AI’s use in dentistry and healthcare? What new use cases will emerge, and how will this impact providers, insurers, and patients in the coming years?

Dolan: Despite the remarkable impact that AI has already made on dentistry, we’re still only scratching the surface of its potential. It’s hard to say exactly what it’ll be like to go to the dentist in 2030 or 2040, but there’s no doubt in my mind that AI will eliminate almost all the friction for patients, from scheduling an appointment, to understanding a diagnosis, to dealing with insurance.

Across the board, AI will enable dentists, insurers, and patients to share the same objective standard for oral health — so that the highest level of dental care becomes what we all expect.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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