Tech research with bite

As users brush their teeth, they are guided with Bluetooth and sensor technology and directed where to go next.

Electric toothbrushes that can track which part of your mouth you are brushing and how effectively are increasingly being used. By allowing the user to see on a tablet or smartphone which areas they are missing when they clean their teeth and how to improve technique, the technology could have significant implications for oral health care, particularly for children and the elderly.

But is the ‘Smart brush’ really suitable for elderly people? Does it help improve dental care outcomes?

These are some of the questions being asked – and answered – by Dr Taiwo Oseni, a technology and business specialist at Federation University. She recently completed a pilot study with elderly patients living independently, who were taught to use a Smart brush, with interesting results.

“One of the reasons we’re looking at the technology for the elderly is to see whether it would improve their oral care,” Dr Oseni said.

“They might need assistance with brushing their teeth, but that doesn’t always happen, due to time constraints that carers have.”

Dr Oseni and her collaborators from Ballarat Health Services, University of Melbourne and Federation University were supported by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute and Colgate-Palmolive, which supplied Smart brushes that are available in the USA, but not yet commercially in Australia.

“The Smart brush documents coverage and duration of brushing, and shows an image of the area of the mouth where brushing is done so once that area is done you can move on,” Dr Taiwo said.

“As you brush it guides you with Bluetooth and sensor technology and tells you where to go next. I think it could be a useful tool.”

But, as with much of the technology Dr Taiwo studies – from large computer enterprise systems and cybersecurity systems to apps used for patients with chronic kidney disease – the Smart brush could have all the features in the world, but if the patients don’t use them then the hoped-for outcomes may not be realised.

“Our hypothesis was that if the interactive features were utilised, the Smart brush would lead to the desired improved oral health outcomes,” she said.

In the pilot, two elderly people initially had their baseline plaque levels tested. They were shown how to use the electric toothbrush – without the smart features switched on – and their plaque levels were retested after a couple of weeks. Then they were given full access to all of the toothbrush’s technological features, including a system in which you accumulate ‘points’ for brushing well.

One of the participants responded well to the technology, brushing more frequently and interacting with all the features.

“He loved a lot of the gamification that came with the brush,” Dr Oseni said. “He was also really happy accumulating points and we saw his plaque levels go down.”

The other participant, however, showed no engagement with the interactive features and continued with his normal pattern of brushing.

Dr Oseni says these two responses sum up the reaction to so many of the technological developments she researches, including companies that spend money enhancing and developing software then wonder why they aren’t reaping the benefits.

“Why is a new implementation or innovation being considered, and what has happened with the old technology,” she said. “Have you taken the time to look at why are we doing this? Is it the right enhancement so it’s then utilised? In the case of the Smart brush, are the metrics helpful? What advantage do they bring?”

Having delivered the pilot trial results to Colgate-Palmolive, Dr Oseni is presenting them to the Americas’ Conference on Information Systems in Minneapolis in August 2022. As the original study in an aged care setting was cancelled due to COVID restrictions, she is hoping that with ongoing funding the research can now go back to a larger group of elderly people in an aged care setting.

Studies show that two-thirds of residents in aged care facilities have significant oral problems and so there is plenty of potential for smart brushes to be used effectively in that demographic.

Related reading:

Profile: Dr Taiwo Oseni

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