Even though it’s inextricably tied to one’s overall health and well-being, oral health is often a less-considered aspect of healthcare. And that’s a problem, compounded by the fact that dental insurance is expensive and thus inaccessible for many Americans. The National Institutes of Health’s recent Oral Health in America: Advances and Challenges report found that public dental insurance is limited for minority and low-income populations. Furthermore, about half of the children in the United States don’t get regular dental care; race and socioeconomic factors play significant roles in this lack of care. But chatbots may offer a cost-effective way to help reduce this dental-care gap.

Researchers at Thailand’s Prince of Songkla University set out to see how a chatbot could help with toothbrushing training with two separate chatbot studies. The first was a pre-pandemic study in which caregivers of children were given in-person toothbrushing training using the 21-Day FunDee chatbot. The second, which was conducted during the pandemic and therefore remote, extended the use of the FunDee chatbot to 30 days and incorporated more video demonstrations of toothbrushing. The goal of both studies was to gauge the effectiveness of using chatbots to prompt caregivers to give children better oral hygiene care.

Both studies were based on Protection Motivation Theory (PMT), the idea that people will be motivated to act in self-protective ways if they perceive a threat to their health. The first study included a plaque score that was tallied after 21 days of an in-person chatbot course. The second study gathered data through in-depth interviews after the participants had used the FunDee chatbot for 30 days. Then the two studies were compared to see how in-person training fared against remote-only chatbot use.

The results? Both in-person and remote chatbot use did comparatively well, increasing the participants’ overall understanding of oral health, as well as the levels of toothbrushing for children by caregivers. Notably, researchers found that the remote-only chatbot program showed that people can improve their toothbrushing skills without the need for in-person training. While chatbots can’t solve all the problems of the lack of dental care for children, they may be able to get them brushing better. And that’s a start.