Virtual reality version of Wembury beach

Visiting virtual beaches could make trips to the dentist less stressful

Image credit: University of Plymouth

Researchers from the University of Plymouth working with a dental practice in Devon have found that navigating natural virtual reality environments during dental procedures could help reduce stress.

VR is emerging as a valuable technology in healthcare, particularly in teaching and in helping patients have pleasant experiences during periods of stress, such as in palliative care.

Now, researchers from the University of Plymouth, the University of Exeter and the University of Birmingham have demonstrated that even a trip to the dentist for a filling or tooth extraction could be made more enjoyable when the patient immerses themselves in a virtual world.

The team paired up with Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to test how a VR experience would help patients relax during a procedure. Subjects were given one of three experiences: the standard procedure, the procedure accompanied by a VR experience of Wembury Beach in South Devon, or the procedure accompanied by a VR experience of a city.

Patients wearing the VR headsets navigated around their environment with a handheld controller.

The researchers found that the patients walking along the virtual beach were less anxious during the procedure, experienced less pain, and had more positive recollections of the experience a week later. These benefits were not seen in the patients who walked around the virtual city during their procedures.

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

The findings are consistent with a growing body of research which suggests that VR experiences in natural environments – particularly at the seaside – are most effective at reducing stress and anxiety. According to the researchers, it was natural to investigate whether it was possible to “bottle” the seaside experience to help patients relax.

“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,” said Professor Sabine Pahl, a University of Plymouth psychologist.

“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.”

Next, the researchers hope to study whether a ‘Virtual Wembury’ could ease the anxiety of patients in other medical contexts, and whether additions to the VR environment could make the experience more pleasant.

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