Virtual reality. It’s one of the sci-fi Holy Grails, from the rejuvenating Holodeck in Star Trek to the more sinister Matrix, the idea of escaping to a different reality on command has captivated the human imagination for centuries. New advances in digital displays, accelerometry, and computing power has opened the field for at least two of the senses in VR headsets, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. For anxious patients desperate to escape the sights and sounds of the dental practice, could strapping on one of these still-awkward headsets really do the trick?
Researchers at the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham joined forces with Torrington Dental Practice in Devon to field-test this equipment in a real dental practice environment. Would the bulky VR headset complicate performing treatment? Would patients become disoriented by the headset or unable to comply with the dentist’s instructions?
Three cohorts were designated, wherein the first group of patients received standard care, the second group explored a beach using the VR set and small handheld controller, and the third group explored a city using the VR setup. Patients were asked to rate their anxiety and discomfort during the procedure both immediately after treatment, and a week later.
Interestingly, only the VR beach was statistically significant in reducing anxiety and physical discomfort during the procedure, suggesting that the simple distraction of the headset is not the most important function; rather, transporting patients to a calming place (the virtual reality aspect) is what provides the anxiolytic effect. Patients in the VR beach group reported less anxiety and less pain than patients in either the standard care or VR city group, and rated their experience at the dental practice much more positively a week later.
Could the ability to transport your patients to a virtual paradise be the next step for your practice? Well, with the cheapest VR headset coming in at 80 dollars, and the most expensive at nearly a thousand, it’s not an overnight decision. There are, however, all kinds of events in most major cities where you can test and compare these technologies, and see if it works for your practice to offer a Holodeck of your own...