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AI Can Lead to Lower Dentist Bills

Dental support organizations are introducing artificial-intelligence tools to standardize care across member clinics and bring down costs


July 16, 2019
By Agam Shah

“AI is happening in the medical world, so it’s naturally creeping over to the dental world. They can do a better job of diagnosing, and they can do it cheaper,” said Doug Fettig, director of dental services at Aldrich CPAs + Advisors, an accounting and consulting firm. The U.S. has about 200,000 dentists, Mr. Fettig said. Clinics that belong to a DSO account for about 15% of the market, he said, adding that by 2025, the share is expected to rise to as much as 30%.

Patient fees with dental practices associated with DSOs are about 11% lower compared with private dental practices, Mr. Fettig said. A 2017 study by researchers at the State University of New York at Albany found that DSOs “appear to be more apt and perhaps more able to accommodate lower reimbursement from public insurance programs than smaller private dental practices, partly due to their ability to treat patients at lower individual cost and reduced overhead.”

Aspen Dental Management Inc., which provides support to more than 750 dentist-owned practices across 41 states, is evaluating the use of AI to analyze X-ray images and find cavities and other problems. The technology should be available within six months, said Yogish Suvarna, chief information officer at the East Syracuse, N.Y., company. The DSO plans to invest $2 million in AI and robotic process automation tools, Mr. Suvarna said. It is also exploring the use of voice-enabled tools that would let dentists dictate information about patients during exams, he added.

AI-enabled analysis, trained on data sets of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dental image scans, can reduce the chance of dentists misinterpreting scans and X-rays, said Amir Neshat, CEO of Liberty Dental Plan Cos., an insurer that administers dental benefits for 4.5 million U.S. customers. Heartland Dental LLC, a DSO based in Illinois that provides support to more than 900 dental offices, is working to automate steps required for more accurate placement of crowns, said Anna Singh, the company’s vice president of clinical training and development.

A tooth typically needs to be prepared before a crown is made. Using a scan of the tooth, a specialist marks the margins of where the tooth ends and the gum tissue starts. That information is used to fabricate a crown. A machine-learning model that Heartland is working on together with startup VideaHealth Inc. automates the process by figuring out how to mark margins through evaluating millions of scans. The goal is to decrease errors by using machine learning to support dentists and their teams.

“Staying current with modern technologies and adapting it to your workflow is absolutely critical. It’s improving efficiencies and improving experiences,” Dr. Singh said.

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal on July 16, 2019: