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‘Virtual beach’ helps ease dental anxiety and pain

15 June 2017

‘Virtual beach’ helps ease dental anxiety and pain

A trip to the dentist, for many patients, can be a harrowing and nerve-wracking experience.  Fear and anxiety are two very common issues when treating patients, and the pain associated with extractions and fillings can often be a preventative factor for patients attending regular check-ups.

Researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham have been working with Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to explore the possibilities of using virtual reality to improve patients’ experiences during a range of routine dental procedures.

The findings, published in the journal Environment & Behaviour, provide some very interesting insights into how this technology may be able to change patient experiences for the better.  The patients who agreed to take part in the study were each randomly allocated to one of three conditions:

  1. Standard Care
  2. A VR experience of walking around Wembury beach in Devon
  3. A VR experience of walking around a city

Each patient who underwent treatment while taking virtual walks used a headset and a handheld controller to direct their own experiences.  The results found that those who virtually ‘walked’ around Wembury beach experienced less anxiety and pain during their treatment, and had more positive recollections than those in the standard care condition.  This was not found for those who walked around the virtual city. 

Dr. Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, lead author of the study, explained "The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences. Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners."

The authors of the research stress that the type of virtual reality environment the patient visits is important.  Virtual Wembury was created by Professor Bob Stone and colleagues at the University of Birmingham.  The fact that patients who visited the beach, and not the virtual city, had better experiences than standard care is consistent with a growing body of work that shows that natural environments, and marine environments, in particular, can help reduce stress and anxiety. 

Dr. Matthew White, co-author from the University of Exeter, explained “We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside.  So it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could “bottle” this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts.”

Dr. Sabine Pahl, project coordinator from the University of Plymouth, added “That walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes shows that merely distracting the patients isn’t enough, the environment for a patient’s visit needs to be welcoming and relaxing.  It would be interesting to apply this approach to other contexts in which people cannot easily access real nature such as the workplace or other healthcare situations.”

Melissa Auvray, a dentist at Torrington Dental Practice, agreed “The level of positive feedback we got from patients visiting Virtual Wembury was fantastic.  Of course, as dentists, we do our very best to make the patient feel as comfortable as possible but we are always on the lookout for new ways to improve their experiences.”

Professor David Moles from the University of Plymouth added:

“This research is one of a number of initiatives we at Plymouth University Peninsula School of Dentistry have been working on alongside the fabulous team at Torrington Dental Practice and it clearly demonstrates the benefits that can be achieved when academics work in partnership with clinicians in order to address problems that really matter to patients.”

The team are hoping to now investigate whether Virtual Wembury can help patients in other medical contexts and whether certain additions to the virtual environment could make the experience even better.


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