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Ask The Dentist: Would you be happy having your teeth filled by a dental robot?

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care, Belfast, says robots performing dental procedures isn't as far-fetched as you might think

Last year a woman volunteered to be the first person to have dental implants placed by a robot in China
Lucy Stock

HOW would you feel if you were booked in with Mr Robot to have a filling done, your teeth cleaned, or a dental implant placed? Medical robots are not just a cool idea for sci-fi movies and the distant future – they are coming.

Well, actually, they are already being used in healthcare. By 2020, surgical robotics sales are expected to almost double.

At the end of last year a brave woman volunteered to be the first person to have two dental implants placed by a robot in China. The robot was developed jointly by the Fourth Military Medical University’s Hospital, based in Xian, and the robot institute at Beihang University in Beijing over the past four years.

According to Dr Zhao Yimin, China’s leading oral rehabilitation specialist, who works at the hospital, the robot combines dentists’ expertise and the benefits of technology.

Before the surgery, the patient had a 3D scan of her jaw taken and then the implant treatment was planned on the computer. The robot was then set up near the patient’s mouth and was guided into position with sensors mounted on to the patient’s teeth. Two titanium implants were then fitted to within a margin of error of 0.2-0.3mm, a superb achievement for this kind of operation. Artificial teeth that were created by 3D printing technology were then connected to the implants.

I have seen the same kind of technology being used here in the UK, just without a robot placing the implant (a mere human dentist was used) and it was very impressive all the same.

So what do people think of being treated by a robot? In an online survey of 502 individuals, participants were "significantly less willing to undergo more invasive procedures, such as gum surgery and a root canal, and significantly more willing to undergo procedures such as tooth cleaning or whitening performed by a robot".

Moreover the survey found that the promise of half-price dentistry increased participants' willingness to accept dental care from an autonomous robotic dentist, Florida-based Professor Stephen Rice and his colleagues reported at this year's International Symposium on Human Factors and Ergonomics in Healthcare in Boston.

People who are already anxious about the dentist might be even more anxious to think that a robot will be working in their mouth. But there are comparisons with existing robots that might make you more comfortable. Currently, medical robots such as the da Vinci Surgical System are being used to help doctors perform various operations, including cardiac surgery.

“Medical robots can help doctors increase the precision, safety and quality of certain surgical procedures as well as rehabilitation and patient-care operations,” Rice said. He added, “Yet, robotic dentistry is still in the early stages of development.”

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