Michael Sultan considers the potential impact of anthroengineering.
It’s no secret that a more holistic approach to dentistry is fast becoming the norm. It’s not unusual to now discuss oral health in relation to wider wellbeing when we speak to our patients and consider how various outside influences can affect dental health. But fundamentally, we still approach dentistry as, well… dentists. However, what if there were a new way to look at dentistry that would change the foundations of what we know?
If the discussion around anthroengineering proves to be true, then this emerging field could be exactly that.
What is anthroengineering?
Effectively, anthroengineering is the result of a transdisciplinary approach comprised of both anthropology (the study of humanity) and engineering (the science of technology). This means that this field not only considers human behaviour, language and societal effects, but also how these can be combined with the application of science alongside the manufacture of mechanical solutions to solve any problems.
To put it more simply, it is the use of methods, data and theories from both the fields of anthropology and engineering to address problems both within and beyond the boundaries of the two respective fields.
Although the scope of anthroengineering is broad, this unique approach has already resulted in some interesting breakthroughs in areas such as biomechanics and could, possibly, have a big impact on dentistry in the future.
Anthroengineering and dentistry
So how can this field make a difference to dentistry in the coming years? It’s really all about perspective and changing the way that we fundamentally approach problem-solving through technology. Traditionally, we don’t tend to consider the impact that a piece of technology will have on human biology and our culture before it is released to the public. Indeed, we usually study the changes in behaviour that these technologies cause and their cultural significance once it has already taken place. An example of this could be mobile phones, or even social media – these relatively recent innovations have transformed our culture and our society in ways which are probably far beyond the scope of what the creators ever envisioned.
Even in dentistry, where technologies and products are well researched and tested before release, we often don’t think ahead about the complete behavioural and cultural impact that any developments could have. Indeed, a recent article that explored anthroengineering argued that a number of dental products aren’t entirely fit for purpose because of lack of foresight. Dentures, for example, are not fulfilling the exact same role as natural teeth, and this is having a significant effect on individuals whether they are aware of it or not. Although dentures try to replicate the shape and appearance of biological dentition, for the most part they do not break down food during the chewing process in the exact same way – a problem that could lead to malnutrition and a decreased quality of life over time.
Anthroengineering in dentistry will aim to understand the role of teeth from a more evolutionary point of view, not only looking at the function of teeth as they are today, but understanding their beginnings in order to see how they may continue to change in the future. This will, arguably, give us a further understanding of our own biology and the knowledge to better mirror forces such as chewing in final product design.
It may also give us better insight on how to maintain teeth more appropriately, especially if we look at how changing behaviours and societal factors such as diet are shaping our oral health.
A future to invest in
Though still a young field, anthroengineering is already becoming an established approach. There have already been calls for universities to start offering it as a subject, appeals to governments to provide funding and suggestions that businesses incorporate anthroengineering roles within their teams.
Whilst we can’t know for certain what this interdisciplinary approach will do for the future of dentistry, it certainly ties in with the more holistic viewpoint that we’ve been veering towards over the last few years. Oral health still presents many mysteries, but by learning from our past to shape the future, we may be able to revolutionise dental care for all.