June 19, 2024

AI could revolutionize dentistry. This is how.

New forms of artificial intelligence are already changing the way we write, communicate with our doctors and even create art. But the fast-developing technology may have a long way to go in a more sensitive environment: our mouths.

Hundreds of dental offices across the US are using AI X-ray imaging technology from Boston-based VideaHealth. The software helps dentists deal with routine procedures, such as identifying cavities, as well as spotting more serious conditions, including periodontal disease, or bone loss in the mouth often associated with diseases such as diabetes or Alzheimer’s.

The overarching goal is to use AI not only to improve patients’ oral health, but also to identify potential risks for non-oral diseases, VideaHealth CEO Florien Hillen told CBS MoneyWatch.

“I was at MIT doing AI research in breast cancer, chest X-rays and the whole spectrum of radiology,” he said. “And I realized that AI in dentistry can have an even greater impact on society and health than perhaps any other area of ​​health care.”

AI’s ability to identify patterns and correlations in massive data sets makes it a potentially powerful tool in clinical settings, particularly in diagnosing medical conditions, according to healthcare experts. And Hillen believes that dentistry can harness the power of technology to help diagnose a range of other medical conditions.

“The dentist, he’s a radiologist, a primary care physician, a surgeon and a businessman,” Hillen said. “We want to be the first AI company in the world to diagnose or analyze a billion people in the world. And that’s only possible in dentistry because everyone goes to the dentist every year…but hopefully not all of us get a chest X-ray, or a breast cancer screening every year.”

Like seeing 100 dentists

VideaHealth’s AI is similar to the one behind ChatGPT, a popular public AI model developed by OpenAI. Such “big language models” use statistical techniques to quickly analyze huge amounts of data.

But VideaHealth’s technology analyzes anonymous dental X-ray images and identifies patients for potential treatments based on their screening. The AI ​​tool incorporates a database of millions of images annotated by dentists, with clinical data under various conditions. That allows for faster and more accurate diagnosis and ultimately improves the quality of dental care, Hillen said.

“Our AI was trained on 50 times as much data as one dentist would see in a lifetime,” he said. “What we explain to our customers is that it’s like 100 dentists who have seen 50 times as much data in their lifetime looking over your shoulder.”

Dentist Dr. Michael Scialabba, chief clinical officer of 42 North Dental, a practice based in Massachusetts with more than 113 locations, sees enormous potential value in AI VideaHealth due to its ability to eliminate human error and its power as a diagnostic tool.

He has been piloting the software for a year and now uses it in all of the organisation’s offices. AI improves the consistency and quality of patient care, ensuring that patients receive the same evaluation regardless of the experience of individual dentists, Dr. Scialabba said. The software also helps with potential problem areas in the mouth that a dentist might miss, he said.

“It sharpens the diagnostic abilities of a new graduate or a recent graduate, which is great, as well as someone who is older, because the human eye makes mistakes, especially when we are busy in an office,” said Scialabba. “The busier you get, the more things you’re going to forget to do or miss. It’s not intentional, but it eliminates human error.”

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Filtering out bias?

The use of AI in dentistry could help eliminate bias against patients based on their race, health or socioeconomic status, Scialabba said.

“Doctors look at patients and create bias whether they like it or not, and [AI] it eliminates it,” he said. “The product allows us to have a real conversation with the patient that is factual in nature, allowing us to treat the patients with the care they need as soon as possible, which encourages better outcomes. And when you get better outcomes, patients are healthier, which is ultimately the goal.”

To be sure, there are risks associated with using AI—as with any new technology—in healthcare settings, technology and healthcare experts note. Since their emergence last year, ChatGPT and other forms of so-called AI have been found to be generative make a range of errorsproviding wrong and sometimes incomprehensible information.

That requires prudence in the use of AI in medicine and dentistry, said Dr. Patricia Garcia of Stanford Healthcare, emphasizing the high stakes of using a new tool on real patients.

While the increased use of AI has fueled fears of job losses, Hillen and Scialabba see no immediate threat to dentists or other dental workers.

“The AI ​​is a tool to help with diagnostics – it cannot be diagnosed without the doctor’s agreement,” said Scialabba. “So now, I don’t see any job risk for a dentist to adopt AI.”

“The function of providing hygiene care to patients will not go away,” he said. “I think this can only be improved because often, [AI] it can identify the early stages of the disease and promote patients getting their third or fourth annual cleaning. The sooner we can engage these patients with technology, the more opportunities there will be for hygienists to work.”

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