When asked, a lot of dental professionals will say that the hardest part of their professional journey was training. After all, while written information has its own difficulties, the practical side of dentistry requires patience, precision and a number of other talents to be at a very high level in order to provide the best patient care.
However, the main problem is that it’s difficult to practise these skills regularly unless you have someone to practise them on. We also need to take into account that training often does not give us the opportunity to understand the patient perspective.
In the UK, we are increasingly treating an ageing population who are keeping their teeth for longer. In fact, there are now almost 12 million people in the UK aged 65 or over, making up almost 20% of our population. This figure has been projected to increase significantly over the next 50 years as medical research continues to improve, estimating that there will be an additional 8.6 million people in this age bracket – equivalent to the total population of London.[i]
Understandably, with age comes a number of complex challenges to oral health. Older patients are not only more prone to decay, but are also more likely to experience gum disease, receding gums, dry mouth and other problems that can fast impact their quality of living.[ii] We also need to take into account that these patients may have numerous other problems stemming from their advanced age, such as hearing loss, less dexterity and lack of mobility, all of which can impact how we as professionals provide dental care for them.
So how can dental professionals be trained to cope with the demands of a growing demographic? Traditional training rarely takes into account that patients could be elderly and frail, which is why my interest was piqued when I came across an article describing the use of virtual reality (VR) to train dentists for these situations.
According to the article, a specific VR training simulation tool has been created for dentists which convincingly mimics the physical, visual and auditory experience of an elderly, frail patient with complex needs.[iii] When tested on qualified dental professionals and those still learning the trade, the VR system was found to help improve confidence in treating elderly patients with complex needs among both students and qualified dental professionals.
This is an interesting find as it really does show that VR is a viable way to enhance understanding of patient needs.
Of course, this is just one example of potential VR use in dentistry, and as the technology for this software continues to improve, it’s likely that VR training will become something that all dental professionals and students of the profession can benefit from.
An article I came across discussing the subject offers a brief insight into the further potential of this technology. The piece states that due to the endless versatility of VR, it could easily be adapted to train dental professionals in a number of areas, whether this is helping to sharpen our skills or aiding us to better understand patients with different conditions such as ADHD or anxiety – all without putting real life patients at risk of harm.[iv] If this comes to fruition, the future applications of VR are considerable – not only as a clinical educational tool but one that can really help us gain a better emotional understanding of different patients. This means that we would be far better prepared to connect with patients who have complex needs or conditions that traditionally have raised challenges.
In a similar vein, I also want to take a closer look at robotics and the development of dental androids for use in training. Some may remember that around ten years ago a number of dental androids were created – there was even a viral video of one hilariously malfunctioning that was widely shared on social media. But where are we now? It seems that unlike VR, development into dental training robots is taking a slower, more measured route in order to help professionals train in a new way.
The original android from over a decade ago has experienced a number of upgrades, and with the help of developers from the “love doll” industry, now has a number of interesting new features such as much more realistic skin, and sensors in parts of its body that alert professionals when they accidentally lean on them during treatment.[v]
While these upgrades are arguably smaller in scope than the vast interest taken in VR, I would venture to say that robotics could still have their place in dental training, especially if these androids continue to become more sophisticated.
In the end, both VR and robotics are exciting innovations that could change the face of dentistry as we know it, particularly with regards to training. Who knows, in ten years or so we may see universities full of androids and VR training systems – only time will tell!
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[i] Age UK. Later Life in the United Kingdom 2019. Link: http://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/later_life_uk_factsheet.pdf [Last accessed March 21].
[ii] Daily Caring. Top 5 Dental Problems In Older Adults: Symptoms and Treatment. Link: https://dailycaring.com/5-top-dental-problems-in-older-adults-symptoms-treatments/ [Last accessed March 21].
[iii] BMC. Using Virtual Reality to Train Dental Professionals. Link: https://blogs.biomedcentral.com/on-medicine/2021/03/11/virtual-reality-train-dental-professionals-isrctn/ [Last accessed March 21].
[iv] Dentistry IG. Virtual Reality’s Potential as an Education Tool in Dentistry. Link: https://www.dentistryiq.com/dentistry/article/14180624/virtual-realitys-potential-as-an-educational-tool-in-dentistry [Last accessed March 21].