Data-Driven Dentistry

Introducing a new course in data science

August 11, 2017

For the field of dental medicine, the ability to harness mounting troves of data is the wave of the future. Data analysis will one day help dentists easily make clinical decisions—such as whether to perform a costly and painful implant surgery— based on thousands of data points that can help predict and improve outcomes.

To prepare its students to lead the changing field, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CDM) will roll out a new course that incorporates data science into its curriculum.

Designed in collaboration with Columbia’s Data Science Institute, Department of Biomedical Informatics and the Mailman School of Public Health, CDM’s new course, open to predoctoral and postdoctoral students, is expected to start in the spring. Over the next three years, CDM and its collaborators will build on the offering.

“We are leveraging the university’s strengths within precision medicine and want to train dentists who will help develop personalized treatment based on an individual’s characteristics,” said Joseph Finkelstein, MD, PhD, associate professor of dental bioinformatics and co-creator of the new course. “Data science has a crucial role in that.”

Dr. Finkelstein, who also directs the Center for Bioinformatics and Data Analytics in Oral Health, is collaborating closely with Letty Moss-Salentijn, DDS, PhD, professor of dental medicine and vice dean for curriculum innovation, on course development, along with fellow faculty partners across Columbia. Dr. Finkelstein will co-teach the new course with faculty from CDM, the Mailman School of Public Health and Department of Biomedical Informatics.

CDM’s formal foray into data science curriculum is a move that will support efforts to continuously evaluate and enhance care while reducing costs.

“Like all health care professionals, dentists are in constant need of better decision-making support and refined approaches to providing quality care,” said Dr. Finkelstein. “We need to train our students to understand the underpinnings of data science as it relates to dentistry and engage them in data science from the very beginning of their studies.”

Added Dr. Moss-Salentijn, “There are multiple areas where we collect a lot of data and don’t do anything with it. Developing the tools to examine that data will help our students establish themselves as leaders in the field.”

Interested in exploring data science as it relates to dentistry, second-year CDM student Seth Levitin, agreed that in order to improve patient care, “data scientists are needed to navigate the masses of data to determine how best to go about our work,” he said. “Building a foundation in data science now will enable students to contribute to the continuing evolution of the field.”

The course will be partly taught online and in small groups; major topics related to data generation, storage, visualization and data analysis will be covered. The first part of the curriculum will typically be offered in the spring semester and will be followed in summer by the second part aimed at providing case-based hands-on skills in conducting independent data science projects. In its first year, CDM will offer the course to up to 15 students as an elective. Down the road, it will be formally incorporated it into the school’s dental curriculum.

Excited for the new course offering, Levitin said, “Dental students will have the rare opportunity to learn skills usually absent from even the best dental education.”

The course will allow students to better understand data science and dentistry, arming them with skills such as how to effectively identify sources for data science projects in oral health, select appropriate standards for data representation of dental care delivery, employ interactive tools for big data visualization, and more. It promises to give students a leg up in an already burgeoning and important field.

“The use of big data collections really allows us to improve on what we are doing,” said Moss-Salentijn. “If you don’t do it, you don’t move forward.”