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Is Affordable Dental Care on the Horizon? Robotic Patient Helps Train Students

By Susan Braden

Affordable dental opportunities may arise from improved training at Showa University Dentistry School in Tokyo, Japan. Dentists-in-training have found a willing patient in “Hanako,” a robot with resin teeth who reacts to treatment much like a real person does.

What Hanako Does

Most people would not eagerly volunteer themselves as subjects for future dentists, but the female-looking Hanako is readily available for any procedure. She imitates a real patient by rolling her eyes, speaking, expressing pain and even producing a drool-like substance. Robots have already been created for several tasks, especially in Japan, but the field of robotic health patients is still narrow. This one is the first to be used in large-scale evaluation of future dentists, according to the university, which used Hanako in clinical exams for 88 students in March.

A student can drill and grind on this robot's resin teeth, because instructors will remove them later to assess a student's skill level. If the future dentist drills too hard or hits the wrong spot, Hanako could start moving her head, in which case the student has to stop immediately, remove sharp tools and instruct the patient not to move. If not, the student could damage the teeth and gums. The robot also moves her eyes, jaws and tongue, slackening her jaw as the treatment progresses to simulate fatigue. Treating Hanako is still different from treating an actual patient, but several students say it’s more effective than working on a mannequin. The inventors have announced that Hanako’s price is confidential, but it may be safe to assume that the robot is not affordable yet.

How Robots Can Help

Despite her presumably less than affordable price tag, robotic patient developments such as Hanako could train student dentists more quickly and effectively so that they can offer quality work at better, more affordable dental prices in the future. Through this technology, they can make mistakes with much fewer repercussions and learn what to do and what not to do before treating real patients.

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“We still have a system where the ‘apprentices’ watch doctors with higher skills, borrow from them and copy them… This is not scientific,” said Koutaro Maki, vice director of the oral health hospital at Showa University. Experts say, however, that this new robotic method has already vastly improved training for future dentists. If the concept catches on, robot technology can become an effective substitute for immovable, unresponsive mannequin heads.

 

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