Visiting virtual beach transforms going to the dentist

Copyright: bartrand / 123RF Stock Photo

Imagine walking along a South Devon beach on a lovely day. The waves are lapping on the shore, rabbits are scurrying in the undergrowth, and the bells of a local church are mingling with the calls of seagulls. Then, as you turn to continue along the coast path feeling calm and relaxed, you suddenly hear your dentist say, “Fine, all done, you can take the headset off now.”

For patients at one dental practice in Devon, England, this virtual reality encounter has resulted in demonstrably better experiences in the dentist’s chair.

In a study published in this month’s journal Environment & Behaviour, a team of researchers from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham worked with Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to find out whether such experiences could improve the patient’s experience during routine dental procedures, such as fillings and tooth extractions.

Patients who agreed to take part in the study were randomly allocated to one of three conditions: standard care (i.e. normal practice); a virtual walk around Wembury beach in Devon (using a headset and handheld controller); or a walk around an anonymous virtual reality city.

The study found that those who ‘walked’ around Wembury were less anxious, experienced less pain, and had more positive recollections of their treatment a week later, than those in the standard care condition. These benefits were not found for those who walked around the virtual city.

“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,” lead author Dr Karin Tanja-Dijkstra said.

“Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

The project’s coordinator 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.”

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