Virtual Walks on the Beach Improve Dental Visits

14 Jun 2017
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Wembury Beach in Devon as seen through virtual reality. Wembury Beach in Devon as seen through virtual reality.

Most patients would prefer a walk on a beach over a trip to their dentist. Now, they can do both at the same time and have a much more positive dental experience. Researchers from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter, and Birmingham in the United Kingdom worked with the Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to develop virtual reality (VR) software that would improve routine dental procedures such as fillings and extractions.

Patients involved in the study were randomly assigned to one of 3 conditions: standard care without any VR, a VR session of a walk around Wembury Beach in Devon, or a VR session of a walk around an anonymous city. The researchers found that the patients who “walked” on the beach were less anxious, experienced less pain, and had more positive recollections of their treatment a week later than those who received standard care or used the city VR.

“The use of virtual reality in healthcare settings is on the rise, but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences,” said Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, PhD, formerly of Plymouth University and lead author of the study. “Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

The authors note that the type of VR environment the patient visits is important. The fact that the patients who virtually visited the beach and not the 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.

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

“That walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes, showing that merely distracting the patients isn’t enough. The environment for a patient’s visit needs to be welcoming and relaxing,” said Sabine Pahl, PhD, MSc, project coordinator of the University of Plymouth. “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.”

“The level of positive feedback we got from patients visiting virtual Wembury was fantastic,” said Torrington Practice dentist Melissa Auvray, BDS. “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.”

Bob Stone, MSc, and his colleagues at the University of Birmingham created the virtual Wembury program. Next, the researchers will investigate whether the Wembury VR can help patients in other medical contexts and whether certain additions to the virtual environment can improve the experience.  

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