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 the local church are mingling with the calls of the 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, such Virtual Reality encounters are resulting in demonstrably better experiences in the dentist’s chair.
A team of researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham worked with Torrington Dental Practice to assess whether virtual reality goggles could improve the patient experience during routine dental procedures, such as fillings and tooth extractions. Two of our dentists, Ian Mills and Melissa Auvray, were co-authors of a scientific paper published on 14th June 2017 in the journal Environment & Behaviour, “The Soothing Sea: A Virtual Coastal Walk Can Reduce Experienced and Recollected Pain”.
Patients, who had agreed to take part in the study were randomly allocated to one of three conditions: a) standard care (i.e. normal practice), b) a virtual walk around Wembury beach in Devon (using a headset and handheld controller), or c) a walk around an anonymous virtual reality city. Results 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.
Previous studies have suggested that reducing the experience of pain could increase the likelihood of future attendance at dental appointments, and the new research found that a virtual walk along a beach reduced both experienced and recollected pain compared with an urban virtual reality environment, and with standard care.
Dentists and staff at Torrington Dental Practice were an integral part of the research team whose work, has drawn extensive interest from the national and international media. The study has been reported in various dental magazines, national newspapers and BBC news.
Ian Mills, who is an Academic Clinical Fellow at the Peninsula Dental School as well as a partner at the practice, is keen to promote the importance of developing research in general dental practice. Ian acted as the study’s Clinical Lead, and explained:
“Most dental care is provided within a primary care setting, but unfortunately very little research is carried out within general dental practice. This was a fantastic opportunity to conduct clinical research which was relevant to our practice, and most importantly an area which could help improve the quality of care we can provide for our patients.”
Melissa Auvray, a partner at Torrington Dental Practice, carried out the treatment and collected the data for the study, and said:
“The level of positive feedback we got from patients was fantastic. As dentists, we do our very best to make the patients feel as comfortable as possible, but we are always on the look-out for new ways to improve their experiences.”
Professor Moles, Director of Postgraduate Education and Research at Peninsula, has worked closely with Ian on a number of research projects, and was delighted with the collaboration between Torrington Dental Practice and the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham on the study – added:
“Our research clearly demonstrates the benefits that can be achieved when academics work in partnership with general dental practitioners to address problems that matter to patients.”
The study was published in the journal Environment & Behaviour on 14 June 2017, and the virtual beach walk experienced by patients can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5kjETt8cZI.
I have always felt confident with the level of care and skill all the staff at the dental practice show. I can honestly say it is by far the best dentist I have been to – which is why I keep coming back.