The digital era in orthodontics: A conversation with Dr Suliman Shahin  

The digital era in orthodontics: A conversation with Dr Suliman Shahin  

In this article, we speak to Dr Suliman Shahin, Chairman of the Preventive Dental Sciences at Imam Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University’s College of Dentistry, and member of the Board of Directors of the Saudi Orthodontic Society (SOS). He is also the first Middle East Invisalign Speaker and an Align Global Faculty member, running a private practice dedicated to clear aligner therapy using the Invisalign system. 

In your experience as an orthodontist, how has the field of dentistry evolved over the last ten years? 

Over the past decade, the landscape of orthodontics has experienced a remarkable evolution, especially in digital dentistry. Traditionally, our diagnostic toolkit heavily relied on visuals and models derived from clinical examinations. The introduction of cephalometric X-rays back in 1931 marked a crucial turning point, but for a while, there was a bit of a stagnant phase in terms of innovative diagnostic tools. There has been a more dramatic change in the last 10-15 years with the advent of 3D X-rays and intraoral scanners, completely revolutionizing how we approach treatments. The integration of computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) then took things to a whole new level, propelling orthodontics into a technological era that was previously uncharted. This shift vividly illustrates the profound impact of technology on both the diagnosis and treatment aspects of orthodontics. Not only has this transformation significantly heightened the accuracy of our diagnoses and treatment strategies, but it has also fundamentally altered the way our patients experience and engage with orthodontic care. It’s an exciting era to be a part of, where technological advancements are enhancing both the precision of our work and the overall journey for those seeking orthodontic treatment. 

What role do you think technology has played in this evolution? 

Technology has played a massive role in transforming dentistry by simplifying processes, improving accuracy and enhancing patient experience. Embracing digital tools like intraoral scanners using Artificial Intelligence has been warmly welcomed by patients, ultimately boosting their confidence and comfort. Despite the intricate details, patients appreciate the visualisations, especially when previewing results before clear aligner therapy. 

Digital technologies contribute significantly to accurate diagnosis and treatment planning, elevating the precision of clinicians and transforming the overall patient experience. In my clinic, leveraging tools like those created by Align Technology has shown that patients genuinely prefer the digital approach, highlighting the positive impact technology has on making dental care more accessible, informed and patient-centred. I like to think about it like the analogy of an airplane journey, where economy represents traditional methods and business class symbolises digital technology, patients unequivocally prefer the latter!  

What are the key challenges and opportunities dental professionals in the Middle East face when adopting digital technologies and incorporating AI into their practices? 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to refine diagnostics, broaden treatment avenues and improve patient experience, yet it’s not without its shortcomings. There are instances where it might overlook subtleties in the nuanced nature of healthcare. This reaffirms the irreplaceable role of a dentist’s hands-on experience, offering a personalised touch that AI can’t completely replace today. A stumbling block for practices could also be the initial investment required to embrace cutting-edge technology. Although it could reduce operating costs in the long run, acquiring the latest equipment can strain budgets, the silver lining lies in the historical trend of tech becoming more financially accessible as it becomes more widespread. 

Maintaining a mindset open to advancements and new ways of working can empower dental professionals to utilise AI and new tech to enhance their work. As Charles Darwin aptly put it: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” When AI is seen as a tool not to replace dentists but rather to complement their work, it can streamline processes, sharpen diagnostics, and allow for more personalised patient care. There is an immense opportunity for change and for dentists to be a part of this technological wave as contributors to the ongoing enhancement and refinement of these tools.  

In your opinion, how does the Middle East compare to other regions in terms of the integration of technology and AI in dentistry, and what unique factors influence this? 

In my view, the Middle East stands out as one of the top early adopters of digital technology, surpassing many other regions globally. The region has a robust and growing economy with high purchasing power, giving a degree of financial stability to invest in state-of-the-art technologies, cutting-edge equipment and AI tools. There is also a strong emphasis on providing world-class healthcare services, and dentistry is no exception. The region’s healthcare infrastructure is designed to be at the forefront of global standards, allowing for streamlined integration of digital solutions. Governments in the region also recognise the importance of technology in improving healthcare outcomes and are very supportive of initiatives that promote the integration of AI and digital advancements.  

Could you describe any innovative digital tools or AI solutions you’ve personally found most impactful in your orthodontic practice, and how have they changed the patient experience? 

As a practice that treats many patients using Invisalign clear aligners to perfect smiles, there are steps in which AI and digital tools are integral to us as orthodontists in the way we work but also in the patient journey.  When patients visit our office, we use advanced digital imagery technology to take a precise 3D scan of their teeth, mouth and dental structure, which builds an accurate 3D image of their smile without the need for molds or impressions. AI integrated into these tools then uses data and predictive algorithms to provide an image illustrating to the patient the anticipated transformation of their smile once the treatment is complete. These tools can improve treatment outcomes and predictability, increase accuracy, even streamline our workflows in the practice and improve efficiency with our labs – but the ability for patients to visualise themselves with a more attractive smile is something profoundly impactful. Often, patients come to see us because they want to improve their self-image and confidence and being able to share an insight into their results within minutes, right there in the chair, is a powerful concept. 

With the rise of telehealth and remote monitoring, how do you see the future of patient-dentist interactions evolving in the context of digital dentistry? 

Telehealth originated in response to limited access to healthcare. As per the NEJM Catalyst Telehealth is defined as: ‘The delivery of healthcare, health education and health information services via remote technologies.’ This concept then expanded into Teledentistry, offering services most notably in diagnostics and monitoring. Initially, its adoption wasn’t as widespread, but the pandemic certainly propelled a greater acceptance in dental practices and from the patients themselves, simply because it was, in many cases, the only option available for a period of time. Technology has evolved further even since the pandemic, tools such as the Invisalign Virtual Care AI can provide a virtual clinical assessment of tooth movement, meaning fewer office visits for patients who require or prefer that.  

However, like any patient-centered service, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and there are many patients who still prefer to visit the practice for in-person interaction, even if this means more frequent visits. I personally think we will welcome further tech advancements that will ultimately continue to elevate the level and type of care that can be offered remotely to accommodate people in different geographical locations, for example, but this will not become ‘the norm’ across the board. I use Teledentistry selectively to accommodate some patients and will continue to do so at their preference, but the hands-on, personalised approach in my dental practice remains integral, ensuring a balance between technological innovation and the artistry of the profession. 

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