If you’ve had braces, you know that it can feel early on like a prison sentence for your teeth.
The lockdown time is doled out in years. There’s a long list of things you can no longer have now that your chompers are incarcerated. Tooth parole seems so far away.
At first, Kyle Morris, a 12-year-old Austinite in for his second stint with braces, was like that prisoner in the movies who flouts the rules and ends up in solitary confinement. Things were not going well.
“He continually broke brackets, wires, the stopper behind his front teeth,” said his mother, Sharon Morris. “We were here all the time for him to come in to have it fixed.”
“Here” was Austin Orthodontics Arts in Northwest Austin where David Hime is Kyle’s dentist. The 12-year-old, it turned out, was the perfect patient for a project Hime had been working on since 2011, an app for iOS devices called “Mighty Brace.”
The application, which is meant to help orthodontists teach patients how to brush and floss teeth with braces, debuted in April. For patients, it’s a free, fast-paced, colorful game that gives you five minutes to clean up a cartoon mouth and rack up points.
For orthodontists, who can opt to buy a $499 “Pro” version of the app, it’s meant to be a teaching tool complete with instructional videos and a $50-a-month web portal. There, they can set up competitive game tournaments for their patients and keep track of patients’ progress in a variety of ways.
Hime, who’s seen a lot of technological change since he started practicing in 1988, was convinced by the rollout of Apple’s iPad a few years ago that there might be a better way to help patients help themselves. After seeing a video of the tablet being used in special education, Hime began developing his own idea for a mobile app.
“The iPad with its touch-screen interface is so intuitive. We’re always struggling with how to teach kids to brush and care for their teeth properly. I thought this would be the natural tool for it,” Hime said.
With the help of Austin’s Chaotic Moon development studio and a six-figure budget, “Mighty Brace” accomplishes the goals Hime says he initially set out in a Word document. He says he wanted to create a health care app that was approachable and friendly, allowed orthodontics to interact with patients and that accurately depicts proper brushing.
The app features a cute “Reptilian blueberry-like” animated mouth as its main character, as Hime describes it, but is realistic enough to take into account the position of the brush, order of flossing and other factors in racking up a patient’s score. It’s a far cry from the crude dental-themed game I grew up with, “Tooth Invaders” for the Commodore 64.
“Mighty Brace” is also competitive. When a dentist sets up a game for their practice and allows players to sign in, a leaderboard can be used to award prizes to a winner. Hime says that at his own practice, he gives out a $100 monthly prize. Some of his players already have developed advanced skills in the game. “At least in the beginning I was able to say I had the top spot and talk smack and say they could never beat my score,” Hime said. “That lasted about two days.”
The first winner in Hime’s office was Kyle Morris, who said he’ll use the $100 for a summer camp he’s attending.
The patient says the app helped him turn things around. “I thought it was pretty cool,” Kyle said. “It taught me how to keep my braces clean and what I can and can’t eat. It’s not difficult, but it’s challenging.”
The Pro version of the app includes the game, but also adds a tutorial on what foods are good or bad to eat for those who wear braces.
Hard candy? Bad. Dr Pepper? No. Clear sodas, water and peanuts are all right, but almonds are a no-no. Bubble gum is not recommended.
The one-on-one instruction, in which an orthodontist can walk a patient through the app, Hime said, is crucial. Patients, he said, “have to demonstrate with the app that they understand what they just learned.”
About a dozen of Hime’s patients are currently playing “Mighty Brace.” The app has been downloaded from 62 different countries so far, he said.
The web portal for dentists enables messaging with patients through the app and the ability for a patient to send a photo of their mouth to their dentist between visits to chart their progress. Hime said that just the act of taking a photo of their own mouth to send is usually a good prompt for patients to take better care of their teeth.
Hime said that app features relieves parents from having to monitor their kids’ brushing. “Most parents are unqualified to do that,” he said.
The app has so improved the relationship between doctor and patient that Kyle Morris says he’s considering becoming an orthodontist or oral surgeon when he gets older. “It could have gone sour, but he’s really turned it around,” Hime said.
Sharon Morris is just glad the lessons from the app have stuck and that food in the braces has not.
“He’ll break anything,” she said of her son. “It’s made for him.”