By Genni Burkhart
The expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) into oral healthcare has experienced tremendous growth over the past two decades. With increasing investment in this technology, AI applications are extending their reach into areas of dentistry previously thought to be reserved only for human intelligence. While the list of threats to humanity seems to be growing lately, there's no need to add AI robots to that list just yet. AI is a tool at the dentists’ disposal meant to enhance their capabilities and elevate patient care, not replace them.
What Is Artificial Intelligence?
According to IBM, John McCarthy offers the best definition of AI. In this 2004 paper, he states, "It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable." (John McCarthy, PDF, 106 KB)
AI in dentistry offers dentists the possibility of decreased complications, reduced guesswork, improved decision-making, and fewer unnecessary procedures. When we look at how AI applies to dentistry, AI carries the most promise at improving accuracy and revolutionizing the standard of care. Currently, AI in dentistry is used for a variety of reasons including:
- Identification of normal and abnormal structures. (1)
- Diagnosis of diseases and prediction of treatment outcomes. (1)
- Dental research and dental education. (1)
The Clinical Application of AI in Dentistry
Detection of Disease: A convolutional neural network, or CNN, shows potential in detecting and identifying anatomical structures. According to a study by Thomas Thong Nguyen DMD at McGill University, "Some have been trained to identify and label teeth from periapical radiographs....with a precision rate of 95.8–99.45% in detecting and identifying teeth, almost rivaling the work of clinical experts, whose precision rate was 99.98%." (1)
In addition, this study describes how CNNs are also being used for the detection and diagnosis of dental caries. When applied to 3,000 periapical radiographs of posterior teeth, AI detected "carious lesions with an accuracy rate of 75.5–93.3% and a sensitivity of 74.5–97.1%." Dr. Nguyen explains that this is a considerable improvement over diagnosis by clinicians using only radiographs, "at a sensitivity varying from 19% to 94%.11."
CNNs have also aided in the detection and diagnosis of oral lesions with remarkable accuracy. (1)
Decision Making: When it comes to decision-making in orthodontics, Artificial Neural Networks, or ANNs, show promise at improving the clinical decision-making process and avoiding unnecessary extractions. (2,3) Plan treatments in orthodontics often involve extraction, which unless absolutely required, can decrease successful patient outcomes and increase the risk of complications. With the assistance of ANNs, dentists can decide the best clinical decision before performing an irreversible procedure, such as an extraction. In this same study, ANN was used to help determine the need for tooth extraction before orthodontic therapy in patients with malocclusion at an accuracy rate of 80–93%. (2,3)
Improved Patient Care: With companies such as CareStack raising almost 75 million in funding last year, oral healthcare is seeing a boom from tech companies investing in AI aimed at improving patient care. While AI can provide faster care with more accuracy in the operatory, it also assists the administrative side of dentistry. From creating greater automation for increased workflow, to improving communications, record-keeping, and patient satisfaction, AI is revolutionizing oral healthcare at every step of the patient journey.
Issues with these various applications of AI include cost, time consumption, and integration. While AI does offer a tremendous amount of thinking power, human intelligence is needed to fully integrate and analyze the results of these applications, as well as maintain them.
There are plenty of articles that present AI with salacious titles claiming it will eventually replace humankind. Sarcasm aside, AI is a highly valuable tool in oral healthcare –when in the hands of a skilled and trained licensed dentist and/or dental hygienists. As with all technology, it's not foolproof. We've not yet reached the days where patients can come into the office, be greeted, and then treated by a robot. Human connection matters. So, yes, AI does have the potential to make you a better dentist, but only with a healthy dose of human intelligence.
- J Can Dent Assoc 2021;87:l7
- Xie X, Wang L, Wang A. Artificial neural network modeling for deciding if extractions are necessary prior to orthodontic treatment. Angle Orthod. 2010;80(2):262-6.
- Jung SK, Kim TW. New approach for the diagnosis of extractions with neural network machine learning. (“Applications of artificial intelligence and machine ...”) Am J Orthod Dentofacial Orthop. 2016;149(1):127-33.
Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.