Sometimes It’s OK to Work Harder, Not Smarter

Becky O'GuinFeatured News

Molly Pereira, CDA executive director

By Molly Pereira, CDA Executive Director
From the 2024 Winter Journal of the Colorado Dental Association

I logged into a Zoom meeting last month during the crazy end-of-year hustle. While attendee heads were popping up on the screen, a random chat message appeared that said, “Hi, I’m an AI assistant helping Tamara take notes for this meeting. I’ll also take screenshots of key moments.” As attendees read this, they reacted one of the following ways:

Confusion: “Wait, what?” (re-read message)

  • Interest: “No way! She can be in two places at once!”
  • Judgement: “Are you kidding me? Just show up; the rest of us did.”
  • Disbelief: “Is this a joke? Tamara, can you hear us?” (no answer)
  • Concern: “I guess we really need to be careful what we say today if it’s being recorded.”

If I’m being honest, I probably went through each of those five emotions in about 15 seconds while I tried to decide which emotion I was committing to. I’m not sure I ever fully committed. I go back and forth about my feelings toward artificial intelligence (AI), and I know I’m not the only one. AI is the ability of machines to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence. It’s easy to assume that younger generations accept AI and older generations are more cautious. While certainly a factor, I don’t believe it’s an argument between generations or even technology acceptance.

As an example, most grade-level students have access to Grammarly, a program that scans a piece of writing and identifies writing mistakes, errors and other issues using AI. It’s spellcheck on steroids. Similar to spellcheck, once mistakes are found, the user clicks to accept the correction, so technically you can learn from your mistakes. While I can see the merit of that, I won’t tell you how many times I allow myself to get “close enough” to the spelling of a few words that I can never spell right (like scissors, Hanukkah or hors d’oeuvres), and then just let auto correct do its thing. My son loves Grammarly and he uses it with almost all writing assignments. My daughter is adamantly opposed to using it and frequently tells him that he should just learn grammar in school, and that robots shouldn’t take over the world. Homework is a spirited time in my house.

AI is not new; it’s actually been in our lives since the mid-1950s. In recent years, obviously, it has become much more mainstream, and teeters between convenient and intrusive. It’s convenient when you’re searching on Amazon for the perfect present and based on your search, it suggests other options that you never even considered or knew existed. It’s also convenient when you’re “lead-footing” it up I-70 and Google Maps tells you a speed trap is ahead. It’s annoying when your flight is cancelled, and you are only able to chat with a bot that lacks urgency, compassion and situational logic. It’s intrusive when you’re having a conversation with someone about a product or service you don’t typically own or use and then “magically” promotions for that product or service start appearing in online searches and social media feeds.

My Gen X upbringing definitely contributes to my apprehension about AI – that and movies like “Eagle Eye,” “I, Robot” and “M3gan.” There’s no need for any of those storylines to happen in real life. That said, creativity and technology have brought advances and achieved things that no one thought possible back in the Blockbuster days of “Be Kind, Please Rewind.” The more dental conferences I go to, the more AI companies I find in expo halls. These companies represent virtual schedulers, digital personal assistants, patient relationship management, cybersecurity, radiograph analysis, etc.

While it is not a perfect fit for every patient, virtual assistants are a great investment for appointment scheduling, standard patient communication, 24/7 responses to inquiries, insurance claim submissions and digital payment. This can empower patients, reduce administrative burden, save countless staff hours and enhance practice efficiency.

Clinical uses of AI also exist like voice-activated charting, x-ray analysis and pathology detection but are understandably met with mixed opinions. A article from Nov. 16, 2023, gives an example of how AI can be used to complement clinical skills: “In the clinical workflow, AI-powered pathology detection is simply another tool that helps dentists diagnose more consistently and effectively. It’s similar to the reason why dentists use magnification loupes; it enhances their ability to visualize what can be difficult to see with the naked eye. It gives dentists more data to use in their decision-making. It augments their clinical skills. It does not replace them.”

So where is the line between “work smarter, not harder,” and “work harder, not smarter?” If AI can save time, money and manual labor in a meaningful way, it’s worth investigating and embracing. If AI replaces necessary human interaction and empathy in a customer focused environment, it’s not worth it.

At the CDA we went to an automated receptionist a few years ago following COVID, when most of us were working remotely outside the office. This, by default, meant we also had a virtual office manager. It appeared to work for a little while because we really didn’t have a need in the office for ordering supplies, doing event logistics and preparing for in-person meetings, among other things. We were all transitioning to a new virtual normal. It also saved money since we weren’t paying a staff salary and benefit package. On paper, this was a great move but as another year went by, we realized that we started receiving more calls that were not accurately routed by our virtual phone tree. Callers were frustrated with this system and were selecting any number on the phone keypad just to get to a human who could think independently and help them. We also started working in the office more regularly and while some supplies were on an auto-pilot ordering system, most of the other “invisible jobs” of office management were being absorbed by other staff who really didn’t have the time to properly do them. In mid-October 2023, we reinstated our office manager position and hired Amanda, a puzzle piece fit for the CDA’s needs. Now when members call, a human can help them immediately with their needs and questions. Amanda is also reassessing our “auto-pilot” orders and services to be sure they still make sense for us and streamlining all other systems, which makes us all more efficient. Is the CDA anti-AI? No, not at all. In fact, we’re planning to implement a system by this summer that will allow us to cater to each of our members in a more personalized manner. The key is to keep it personal. Sometimes that means to get help from technology and other times it means to stick with the tried and true “people, not prompts” method of customer service.

Robots will only take over the world if we let them.