Holograms and Health Care: Meharry Professor Wants to See the Future of Dental Education in 3D

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A simulation of how School of Dentistry students might see a hologram of a tooth as part of dental education using Microsoft HoloLens.

NASHVILLE, TN — Gerald Davis, D.D.S. ’11, remembers when the idea came to him. “I looked up one day and said, ‘We need to expand our simulation center to include a holographic simulation center.’” His investigation led him to Microsoft’s HoloLens. “This is going to be beautiful,” he said.

Dr. Davis is the director of academic and student affairs in the School of Dentistry, an assistant professor of restorative dentistry, the school’s second youngest faculty member and a Meharry alumnus—and he’s bullish on new technology in dentistry.

According to the company website, “Microsoft HoloLens is the first fully self-contained, holographic computer, enabling you to interact with high definition holograms in your world.” Dr. Davis said Meharry has been approved as a developer for the platform—what he calls augmented reality. “We’ve started assembling a team…[in] different specialties, also collaborating with the School of Medicine,” he said. He has also reached out to other universities and digital thinkers to join the effort.

“From a learning standpoint,” Dr. Davis said, “students are able to see and compare.” Think comparative anatomy, Davis said. “You can now [juxtapose] an upper canine tooth [and] a lower canine tooth and be able to identify the differences”—important information for national boards, he said, and much better than looking at different photographic perspectives. “Spin it around…based on voice command or hand gestures, interact with this three-dimensional environment sitting right here in front of you,” he said. “You now can actually have an interactive experience.”

Chairside in today’s clinic, Dr. Davis said, computers can give multiple dental views, but HoloLens will change the approach. “Rather than having an assistant click on a computer off in the distance and say ‘Oh, no—spin it this way, no! Go back, zoom in here,’ you would be able with your own hand gestures to manipulate the image.” The dentist has the ability to manipulate the image and keep his hands sterile, he said. “You can plan for implant placement, surgical approaches, restorative cases.”

Davis’s HoloLens project has caught the imagination of others across the country. Last November, he delivered a “TED”-style talk at the 2016 ADEA Deans’ Conference in San Francisco. Dental school deans from across the U.S. and Canada heard about the use of the new visioning technology in dental applications. The opportunity put Meharry in the spotlight, he said. “It set Meharry apart, and [demonstrated] how we’re progressing…unlike any other dental school in the country.”

In line with the technology-driven vision of Meharry’s president, Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, Dr. Davis sees many opportunities for HoloLens. “What I really want to do is to create something that can…generate royalties for Meharry,” he said.

“I want to be the person who gave the gift that over time generated more than a million dollars in my absence. That to me is what it’s all about.”

For Dr. Davis, it’s all part of a heritage at Meharry of affecting the field of dentistry as well as supporting the institutional mission of health caring. “I walk down the hallway where they have all the pictures lined up of the past graduates of Meharry—and I’m moved,” he said. “You look at all these faces and you’re just amazed. But then I ask myself, ‘How many of them have written a textbook that I’m studying out of? How many of them have published the research that I’m being told to go reference. How many of them did another scientific breakthrough that has changed the way the dental profession is done?’”

Dr. Davis said he wants his students to see beyond patient care into innovation. “My fear is that we’re so focused on the immediate, acute issues of [patient care] that we don’t actually plan for the chronic issue which is, ‘How do you actually solve the condition further out?’”

As far as his students are concerned, there’s a special characteristic he looks for. “I’m looking for a person who’s innovative, creative, humble, approachable and kind—and willing. If you have those elements, I can work with you.”

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