How AI is making dentistry more accessible and efficient

Justin Skinner is Chief Information Officer at SmileDirectClub, the first medtech platform for teeth straightening
Justin Skinner
AI being used on teeth

Artificial Intelligence (AI) once seemed like science fiction with talk of robots and high-tech gadgets, but it has now become a reality in some form across all sectors of healthcare. AI advancements are gathering pace and bringing significant opportunity for the improvement of diagnostics and treatment planning within dentistry which is extremely exciting. Looking to the future, the technology may one day produce a toothbrush which can detect the early stages of oral cancer, so the potential gains are vast. More broadly, disruptive technologies drive the outcomes of ‘better, faster and cost-effective’, and when applied to orthodontics, all have the power to democratise the sector with far-reaching positive impacts, particularly in remote or underserved areas.

Treatment planning – SmileMaker Platform

We’re thrilled to have achieved an industry-first using the power of AI to create an application which shows consumers their potential smile transformation within minutes. Through the SmileMaker Platform, which is available through the free SmileDirectClub app, we have leveraged AI technology for a patient to capture a 3D mobile scan of their own teeth, bite and alignment using their smartphone’s camera. The patented platform instantly references nearly two million data points to provide a custom smile plan in minutes. It took us several years to get to this point by utilising AI through our treatment planning software and using the data sourced from the many plans we’ve successfully delivered. This is just one project within our overall mission to introduce AI that transforms the oral care industry by making teeth straightening more accessible, convenient and affordable.

In addition, we have managed to reduce the time needed to create a treatment plan from 45 minutes to under two minutes by taking metrics and outcome data, then feeding it back into the treatment planning process. In the beginning this was done by humans, but we have now automated a lot of the procedure. Humans remain involved, and in our case, doctors, to ensure the proper treatment plan for customers, but we have definitely improved outcomes and reduced the number of refinements for aligners because the treatment planning has become more accurate.

Dental procedures

Much of the orthodontics industry has its roots in the 1900s so the metrics and protocols need to be refreshed. There is a set of fees and a chain of those involved who each have their own opinion on how to treat a particular case. For example, some believe in clear aligners, and some don’t. There’s often a financial component that may not be the best route for the patient, but AI has the ability to really move the needle here and for me, that’s the most exciting part. It’s here that I believe the democratisation of the sector will begin. AI will allow patients to utilise virtual teledentistry platforms with the convenience of using a smartphone. I believe in a future where patients will pursue treatment for a problem found with AI technology, of which they’re currently unaware which evolves into increased proactivity from patients. AI also has the power to gather large data sets of customers using new techniques and conclude what works best across specific demographics such as gender, age and geography, leading to personalised treatments at scale, ultimately allowing us to gain bigger percentages of success over time.

Patient care and engagement

The functionality we’ll be using later this year called SmileMonitoring will effectively allow a customer in treatment to scan their mouth regularly to find out whether they are on track or not, or if their aligners need a refinement. This is to support treatment compliance and to make the aligners fit our customers lifestyle, not the other way around.

Beyond treatments and diagnostics, AI can also play an integral role in customer service. We already deploy an AI bot to listen into the interactions between call centre agents and customers. The bot then summarises the call to make the process more efficient.

Dental research and development

Research around AI in dentistry is currently focusing on diagnostics and I believe it will continue down this track, potentially with huge benefits. I’ve read studies previously about how AI is very good at finding and detecting hard to spot issues such as vertical root fractures. In my opinion, the more the industry can apply computer vision to diagnostics, the earlier we’ll be able to spot potential issues with patients which leads to better outcomes for patients.

Ethical concerns

AI is not perfect, but nothing ever is. Currently, it feels more comfortable having a human involved to make judgment calls and I believe there will be a lot of rules and regulations that will be formed around AI decision making. The potential downsides are if AI models are trained in a way that has negative biases or if we as humans trust the algorithms too much without oversight and a verification process.

Computers excel in areas where humans don’t. We can leverage calculations from a computer to do a lot of the heavy lifting, or the very finely tuned things a human may not even notice. The human is better at assessing the macro picture and bringing wisdom by connecting a lot of dots so I think we will continue as a marriage of the two for a while.

We listen to calls with customers three times a week who use the SmileMaker platform and there have been truly amazing moments as customers cry tears of happiness because they have a new confidence added to their life through the treatment. Our offering, now underpinned by AI, allows these people to move forward with their lives and undergo what they believe is ‘life changing’ treatment that is both more cost-effective and convenient.

Written by
Justin Skinner
Written by
June 19, 2023