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Toothsome Beauties Who Know the Drill

Computerized mannequins that mimic real-life patients are moving into U.S. dental schools

FRIDAY, Nov. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- They aren't afraid of the drill and are never late for appointments. They don't wince, squirm, ask for more pain medicine or complain about their bill.

Virtually perfect dental patients?

No, actually, they're perfectly virtual dental patients.

They're a new class of computerized mannequins that are helping future dentists learn to drill, probe and fill cavities with confidence in dental schools nationwide.

The mannequins are as close to being human as cutting-edge graphics software and real-time image processing can make them, says Dr. Ken Zakariasen, executive director of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.

In fact, the units are a big improvement over the "head on a stick" dummies they're replacing.

"In the past, dental schools used plastic jaws with snap-in teeth to train students," says Zakariasen. "The experience was good, but it was always quite a leap when they began to work on real teeth in live patients. Virtual reality units provide for a much smoother transition between the teaching environment and the practice environment. In fact, the mannequins are so realistic, the only thing students have to get used to now is that live patients talk."

Each unit includes not only a realistic patient form -- complete with a head, face and full set of real-looking teeth -- but also a set of dental instruments, infrared sensors and an overhead infrared camera with a monitor and two computers.

Signals from the sensors on the mannequin and the instruments are processed and displayed as a three-dimensional, lifelike view of the patient's mouth on one computer. The second computer provides immediate feedback on the student's performance, audio signaling of errors in technique, and simultaneous viewing of the dental work in progress, as well as the ideal procedure for the dental problem being treated.

Zakariasen estimates the units are presently used in about half of America's dental schools. Each costs about $70,000.

Dr. Daniel Boston, chairman of the Department of Restorative Dentistry at Temple University's School of Dentistry in Philadelphia, notes that his school's two virtual reality units are popular with students and faculty.

But he says, the new technology is being used to enhance -- not supplant -- existing instructional approaches.

"Simulation isn't new to dentistry," Boston says. "Students have always practiced with artificial teeth and models of the human mouth as a means of learning and reinforcing the skills they will need."

"What's new is that these units provide instant feedback on a computer screen as a procedure is being learned," he adds. "It allows students the opportunity to see the teeth they are working on from all angles, as well as to see what effect they are having on the tooth, internally and externally."

Boston also notes the technology allows students to make a digital record of their work and replay it later for themselves or their professors. They can also repeat the same procedure many times until it's perfected.

"There's no doubt that some students learn faster and become more confident when they're trained this way," Boston says. "In fact, it took longer to get the faculty members acculturated to the new technology than it did for students to catch on to its potential to improve their technical skills. This generation of dental students grew up with computers. They are obviously ready for virtual reality-based learning."

Zakariasen believes the virtual reality units will help dental schools move faster toward what he characterizes as "patient-centered" dental care.

"In the past, dental training was procedure-centered," he says. "Now schools can use the mannequins to teach procedures and use students' time with real patients to focus on what patients need, not what the student needs to learn."

Boston concurs.

"This isn't just technology for technology's sake," he says. "It's an approach that translates into better-prepared dentists and ultimately into better patient care."

What to Do: The virtual reality training system presently used in most U.S. dental schools is DentSim. View a DentSim demonstration online by clicking here. Or check out the University of Iowa's Dentistry Simulation Clinic.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ken Zakariasen, D.D.S, Ph.D., Executive Director, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, and clinical professor, School of Dentistry, Marquette University, Milwaukee; Daniel Boston, D.M.D., chairman, Department of Restorative Dentistry, Temple University's School of Dentistry, Philadelphia
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