A recent study published in the journal Environment & Behaviour shows promise for the use of virtual reality in the treatment of anxious and fearful dental patients. According to a recent Science Daily article, a team of researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham teamed with the Torrington Dental Practice in Devon, England to determine if virtual experiences could improve the experience for patients with dental anxiety during routine dental procedures, like fillings and tooth extractions. The results were very interesting.
A number of patients at the practice agreed to take part in the study and were randomly placed into one of three groups: standard care/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 researchers determined that those who “walked” around Wembury were less anxious, experienced less pain, and had more positive recollections of their treatment a week later when compared to those receiving standard care. The same benefits were not found with those who walked around the virtual city.
“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 Dr. Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, lead author on the study. “Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”
The research indicates that the type of virtual reality environment visited by the patient is an important factor. There is a growing body of evidence, supported by this study, that suggests that natural environments, especially marine environments, can help reduce stress and anxiety.
“We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside,” said Dr. Matthew White, co-author from 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.”
Dr. Sabine Pahl, the project coordinator, added “that walking around the virtual city did not improve outcomes shows that merely distracting the patient 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.”
The team is now hoping to continue their investigation by determining if Virtual Wembury can help patients in other medical contexts. They also plan to add to the virtual environment to improve the experience even further. To see what a patient sees in this virtual experience, check out this YouTube video.