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Exploring the Possibilities: How Artificial Intelligence Could Transform Dentistry

New forms of artificial intelligence are already changing how we write, communicate with our doctors, and even create art. But the rapidly evolving technology could soon have a permanent fixture in a more sensitive environment: our mouths.

Hundreds of dental offices across the U.S. are now using AI-powered X-ray imaging technology from Boston-based VideaHealth. The software helps dentists deal with routine procedures, such as identifying cavities, as well as spot more serious conditions, including periodontal disease, or bone loss within the mouth often linked with diseases like 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 entire radiology spectrum,” he said. “And I realized that AI in dentistry can have an even greater impact on society and health than maybe any other health care domain.”

AI’s ability to discern patterns and correlations in vast sets of data make it a potentially powerful tool in clinical settings, especially in diagnosing medical conditions, according to healthcare experts. And Hillen believes dentistry can tap into the technology’s power to help diagnose a range of other medical conditions.

“The dentist, he is a radiologist, a primary care physician, a surgeon, and a business person,” Hillen said. “We want to be the first AI company in the world to diagnose or to analyze a billion people globally. And that’s only possible in dentistry because everyone goes to a dentist every year… but hopefully not every one of us gets 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 “large-language models” use statistical techniques to swiftly analyze massive amounts of data.

But VideaHealth’s tech analyzes anonymized dental X-ray images and identifies patients for potential treatments based on their screenings. The AI tool incorporates a database of millions of images that have been annotated by dentists with clinical details about different conditions. That enables faster, more accurate diagnosis and ultimately enhances the quality of dental care, Hillen said.

“Our AI has been trained on 50 times as much data as one dentist alone would see in their entire lifetime,” he added. “What we explain to our customers is it’s like 100 dentists who have all seen 50 times as much data in their lifetime are looking over your shoulder.”

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

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

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

Microsoft vice president on the future of AI and medicine


Screening out bias?

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

“Doctors look at patients and they create a bias whether they like it or not, and [AI] eliminates it,” he said. “The product allows us to have a true conversation with the patient that’s factual in nature, which allows us to treat the patients with the care needed at the earliest stage possible, which drives better outcomes. And when you get better outcomes, patients are healthier, and that’s ultimately the goal.”

To be sure, using AI — as with any new technology — in healthcare settings carries risks, tech and healthcare experts note. Since their emergence last year, ChatGPT and other types of so-called generative AI have been found to make a range of errors, providing incorrect and sometimes incoherent information.

That calls for prudence in using AI in medicine and dentistry, said Dr. Patricia Garcia of Stanford Health Care, underlining the high stakes when using a new tool on real patients.

Although the growing use of AI has stirred fears about job losses, Hillen and Scialabba don’t see any immediate threat to dentists or other dental workers.

“The AI is a tool to help an aiding of diagnostics — it can’t diagnose without the doctor’s agreement,” Scialabba said. “So right now, I don’t see that there’s going to be any job risk for a dentist to adopt AI.”

“The function of providing hygiene care to patients is not going to go away,” he added. “I think this only can be enhanced because in many cases, [AI] can identify early stages of disease and promote patients getting a third cleaning a year or fourth cleaning a year. The sooner we can get these patients engaged with the technology, the more opportunities there are going to be for hygienists to work.”

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