For patients at a dental practice in Devon, England, Virtual Reality encounters in the dental chair can result in demonstrably better experiences. A team of researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham worked with Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to find out whether virtual experiences could improve the patient’s experience during routine dental procedures such as teeth removal.
Patients, who agreed to take part in the study were randomly allocated to one of three conditions: a) standard care , b) a virtual walk around Wembury beach in Devon or c) a walk around an anonymous virtual reality city. Results found that those who ‘walked’ around Wembury beach were less anxious, experienced less pain, and had more positive recollections of their treatment when compared to those in the standard care condition. These benefits were not found for those who walked around the virtual city. For patients experiencing Wembury beach they experienced waves are lapping on shore, rabbits scurrying around, and the sounds of the bells of the local church and calls of the seagulls.
The researchers stress that the type of virtual reality environment the patient visits is important. Virtual Wembury beach was created by Professor Bob Stone and colleagues at the University of Birmingham, and the fact that only patients who visited Wembury beach, and not the virtual city, had better experiences than standard care is consistent with a growing body of work that shows that natural environments can help reduce stress and anxiety. Work has been done to suggest people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside. The environment for a patient’s visit thus needs to be relaxing and welcoming.
The group is now investigating whether Virtual Wembury beach can help patients in other medical contexts and whether certain additions to the virtual environment can even make the experience better. Of course this research seems to indicate that if you go to a beach shortly before a dental visit (a real one) than your dental experience will likely be better.
It would be interesting to see if using virtual reality could also be used help improve relationships in both work and personal settings, and in particular strained marriages. Perhaps if you were to take individuals out of their normal environmental settings and instead to the beach, it could have a profound impact on lowering divorce rates and maybe one day will be a part of marriage counseling and other forms of therapy.
Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, Sabine Pahl, Mathew P. White, Melissa Auvray, Robert J. Stone, Jackie Andrade, Jon May, Ian Mills, David R. Moles. The Soothing Sea: A Virtual Coastal Walk Can Reduce Experienced and Recollected Pain. Environment and Behavior, 2017