Imagine that you are walking along a beach on a nice sunny day. Waves are lapping gently on the shore, children are building sandcastles, and seagulls are soaring overhead. As you turn to continue along the rugged coast path on your calm and relaxing stroll you suddenly hear your dentist say "We're all done, you can take the headset off now."
Patients at a dental practice in Devon, England have been experiencing what it is like to have a dental treatment at the beach through Virtual Reality. And these encounters seem to be resulting in demonstrably better experiences in the dentist's chair.
Here is a link to what the patient sees.
Dental Treatment with Virtual Reality
In a study that was published in the journal Environment & Behaviour, a team of researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Birmingham, and Exeter worked with the Torrington Dental Practice in Devon. They wanted to find out whether the experience of being elsewhere these could improve the patient's experience during some routine dental procedures. e.g. fillings and tooth extractions.
Patients who agreed to take part in the study were randomly allocated to one of three conditions:
a) standard care, i.e. normal practice in the chair
b) a virtual walk around Wembury beach in Devon using a headset and a handheld controller
c) a walk around an anonymous virtual reality city.
The results found that those who virtually 'walked' around Wembury beach reported feeling less anxious, experienced less pain, and also had more positive recollections of their treatment a week later, compared to those in the standard care condition. These benefits were not reported for those who walked around the virtual cityscape.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, said: "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 researchers stressed that the type of virtual reality environment the patient visits is very important. Virtual Wembury beach was created by Professor Bob Stone and colleagues at the University of Birmingham. Only patients who visited Wembury, rather than the virtual city, had better experiences compared to standard care. This is consistent with a growing body of work which shows that natural environments, and particularly marine environments, can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Dr. Mathew White, the 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."
The project's coordinator at the University of Plymouth, Dr Sabine Pahl, 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 was the Torrington Practice dentist involved in the research. She 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 look out for new ways to improve their experiences."
Professor David Moles from the University of Plymouth also 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."
Next steps for the team are to investigate whether Virtual Wembury could help patients in other medical contexts and whether certain additions to the virtual environment could make the experience even better for patients.
While Metral Dental Clinic cannot yet offer Virtual Reality, we have music and art to soothe your senses. And we are only a few blocks from the beach so you can pop down straight after for some sea air.
Call us now for your summer whites! (250) 390-1494