When I was a newbie dentist in the early 1980’s, there was very little digital technology for health care professionals to use – our clinical and business records were paper-based, and automation was minimal. In the intervening 40 years, there has been a profound revolution – digital technology has become ubiquitous and has revolutionized all aspects of health care. These advances deliver important, often life-saving solutions, as well as optimizing how health care professionals run their businesses and coordinate with colleagues, patients, and payers.
Now that we’re at the start of 2023, there are three key emerging technologies driving important solutions that health care professionals should keep in mind.
Key Emerging Technologies in Health Care
Arguably, while Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the most exciting emerging technology in health care, it is also one of the less understood in terms of what it is and what it is not. AI is defined as software algorithms enabling operations that resemble human thinking. It is also characterized by machine learning – the ability of these systems to base their decisions on experiential learning. While it is not new – serious discussions about AI can be traced back to 1956when the term was first used – AI is a reality today because it requires the incredible computing power that computer engineering has only recently achieved. Additionally, AI is in its earliest of three stages, meaning it can perform a narrow set of tasks.
AI is used in a rapidly increasing number of ways in health care. The most exciting is computer vision, which is the use of AI to recognize patterns in medical and dental images, usually 2D and 3D radiographs. AI computer vision is a perfect example of clinical decision support, which is the use of tools to assist doctors in making diagnostic and therapeutic decisions. Today, this software is helping to identify and characterize pathology such as tumors and dental lesions.
AI is also used for a myriad of other functions in health care, including:
- Segmenting patients for follow-ups based on detected patterns
- Optimizing scheduling
- Automating treatment plan recommendations
- Predicting when critical equipment will need service and prophylactically replacing vulnerable parts
- Assisting in precision medicine to match a patient with the therapy that is most likely to help the individual
- Assisting in the development of new pharmaceuticals by identifying agents that are most likely to yield results
- Training and Simulation – helping surgeons, restorative dentists, and students hone in on the skills needed for difficult procedures by enabling them to practice in simulated environments repeatedly
- Prosthetic Design – using AI software for automated design of prostheses
- Robotics – using surgical robots to assist surgeons in performing complex procedures
Interestingly, dentistry is a leading industry utilizing this technology today. The potential for this additive manufacturing technology cannot be overstated. It is driving solutions that previously were impossible. Using 3D printing, health care professionals and labs can cost-effectively and quickly create custom prostheses and other unique solutions. And, as the resins and other “inks” are developed, 3D printing has steadily been growing in use cases from being used to prototype, to now being able to make finished products. Today, replacement prosthetics – e.g., dental crowns and dentures, bones, and joints – are all being custom printed. 3D printing enables precise, one-off manufacturing to be done the same day and in the doctor’s office, reducing the reliance on slower, more expensive outside agents like dental labs. 3D Bioprinting is also emerging, where 3D printing is used to make custom body parts such as replacement organs, and custom, on-demand drugs.
The Metaverse: Augmented, Mixed, and Virtual Reality
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are also not brand new, but their practical use in health care is recent. These technologies have gone from cool and fun consumer products with little professional value, to an increasing set of truly important solutions. Virtual Reality (VR) is the full replacement of one’s reality with another, typically employing VR goggles, like Meta’s Quest®. Augmented Reality (AR) superimposes images upon one’s experience. Head-up displays in automobiles is an example of AR devices. Mixed Reality can be described as an immersive computer-generated combination of physical reality and VR.
Among the ways these immersive technologies are used include:
- Training and Education: immersive environments are utilized to help students learn how to perform procedures, enabling them to try them over and over, and understand anatomy.
- Patient Comfort: AR solutions help patients, including children, escape an unpleasant reality of a difficult dental or medical procedure by immersing them in a pleasant, alternative 3D audiovisual experience.
- Clinical Procedures: Superimposing images and instructions on physical reality to aid professionals in performing procedures. This can also enable a remote expert to monitor the procedure and offer audio and video live assistance.
- Equipment Maintenance: Helps train and assist technicians by superimposing video and audio instructions on equipment they are diagnosing or servicing.
Digital technology has continued to drive important advances in health care, enabling far more individualized delivery of precision care and predictable outcomes. In addition to the three technologies above – AI, 3D printing, and the Metaverse – there are many others that are helping create a new and exciting world of improved diagnostics, therapies, drugs, and infection prevention and control solutions. Just a few decades ago, health care was largely absent to digital technology, yet today, these solutions are essential and will rapidly lead to new solutions that help save and improve lives, while optimizing the business of health care.
Bruce Lieberthal, Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer, Henry Schein, Inc.
Bruce Lieberthal serves as the Chief Innovation Officer for Henry Schein, Inc. In this role, he is at the nexus of evaluating hundreds of cutting-edge solutions and technologies, advising the medical and dental business units of Henry Schein on important emerging trends, and helping connect the company’s global sales, marketing, and distribution capabilities with important new products that help its customers run better practices and deliver excellent patient care. Previously, from 2009 until 2015, he was the Vice President, Emerging Technologies for Henry Schein, Inc. Bruce had oversight responsibility for Henry Schein Medical Systems (MicroMD) in the US between 2011 and 2017 and led Henry Schein One’s Digital Dental Exchange (DDX) business. He also led the ConnectDental team, focused on the launch of Henry Schein’s digital dentistry business for two years and worked closely with the Corporate Business Development Group advising on technology opportunities. Bruce has been a leader in dental technology for almost 35 years. He graduated the State University of New Yok at Buffalo’s School of Dentistry in 1983, practiced dentistry for 14 years between 1984 and 1997, and brings expansive knowledge and forward-thinking insights to the Henry Schein team.