Overcoming dental fear with the tap of an app

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overcoming dental fear
Photo: David Song/NYU

A new app created by US researchers shows promise in treating dental anxiety, using the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness—all from the comfort and privacy of home. 

In the pilot study by a team at NYU College of Dentistry and Penn School of Dental Medicine, half of participants reported that they were no longer fearful. 

The research is published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry.

“These technologies empower patients via strategies to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour at their next dental appointment,” principal investigator Richard Heyman said.

The challenge confronting the research team was not how to treat dental fear, but how to package the proven approaches in a way that is both accessible to patients and works for dentists.

They developed a smartphone app, Dental Fearless, which uses CBT in an engaging series of activities, all done virtually. In the app, participants are led through educational materials on fear and anxiety, including strategies and coping skills to use at the dentist, from breathwork and muscle relaxation to effective communication and challenging unhelpful thoughts. Participants also watch videos showing interactions between dentists and patients and then practise the strategies they’ve learned. Finally, they create an action plan for managing fear at their next appointment.

“The program aims to change what you do, what you think, and what you feel at the dentist,” Jasara Hogan said.

Participants who are still experiencing dental fear after using the app then take part in a one-on-one Zoom session with a mental health provider that is tailored to their specific concerns. The hour-long session includes a simulated visit to the dentist—complete with drill sounds and a provider wearing scrubs—as an opportunity to test out new skills.

In the pilot study of Dental Fearless, 48 participants with moderate to severe dental fear used the app, and a subset also completed a one-on-one session. 

The study showed promising results; after their next visit to the dentist, half of participants were no longer fearful, nearly all said that they were able to effectively handle the discomfort of going to the dentist, most reported that the appointment had gone better than expected, and more than half said that the fear they experienced was less intense than anticipated.

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