According to experts, many occupations, such as telemarketers, cashiers and taxi drivers will almost certainly be replaced in the near future by automated machines. As dentists, we might have been watching this news with scepticism. Our profession, at least, has always been one of those that are less likely to be taken over by machines – and that is unsurprising. Not intending to disparage telemarketers or cashiers, but dentistry intrinsically requires a higher degree of skill and training than either of those jobs. The time we spend in education goes to support this. It’s not just the technical skill that dentistry requires either, but the interpersonal needs, business sense and regulatory observances that make dentistry a job suited to humans rather robots.
But we may have cause for alarm. It has recently been reported that, in China, a robot has carried out the very first dental procedure without human intervention. The procedure in question was the placement of two dental implants, which the machine did with a high degree of accuracy. What’s more, the prostheses that were used had been 3D printed using automated CAD/CAM technology – meaning the entire procedure had been completed with minimal human control.
The Chinese dental robot was designed as a potential solution to the lack of fully qualified dentists in China, where demands for dental work far outweigh the number of professionals trained to provide it – and with such promising results from the first test, it is likely that more procedures will be referred to these robotic surgeons.
In the UK, we are seeing a similar problem – where there are too few dental professionals to address the growing dental needs of the public. But is the answer robotics?
Of course, patients want their dental procedures to be carried out with a high degree of accuracy, and they want their treatments to last for a long time – but we know that results are not the be all and end all of dentistry. Can a robot comfort a scared patient in the same way we could? Can they detect an anxious patient’s body language and adapt their behaviour and manner in response? At the moment, the answer to these questions is no. Yes, a robot may be able to undertake a dental procedure within the accepted margins of error, and they may be able to complete an implant placement in less time than a human surgeon – but they will not be able to build up the same vital rapport with the patient, or the trust, that is so vital in dentistry. A crucial part of my job as an endodontist is to understand my patients frame of mind – could a robot empathise with a patient’s pain the same way I can? Certainly not today, and probably not in my life time either. Ultimately, while automated systems may be able to fulfil very technical functions, that is not what dentistry is all about. It’s about caring for people, encouraging human to human contact and building trust. Until a robot can do these things, I think dentists are safe.