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With Virtual Reality, Life’s a Beach — Even at the Dentist

PLYMOUTH, England, July 13, 2017 — Virtual reality was used to transport patients from the dentist’s chair to a day at the beach at one dental practice in Devon, England — with a demonstrable improvement in the comfort level of the patients, who were participating in a study to determine whether virtual reality (VR) experiences could improve a patient’s experience during routine dental procedures, such as fillings and tooth extractions.

Patients 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 virtual walk around an anonymous virtual reality city.

Virtual Wembury beach, University of Plymouth.

This is a virtual Wembury beach. Courtesy of University of Plymouth.

Results showed 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. No benefits comparable to Wembury beach were found in the patients who “walked” around the virtual city.

The fact that only patients who visited Wembury, and not the virtual city, had better experiences than patients receiving standard care is consistent with a growing body of work that shows that natural environments, and marine environments in particular, can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Researcher Karin Tanja-Dijkstra said, “The use of virtual reality in health care settings is on the rise but we need more rigorous evidence of whether it actually improves patient experiences. Our research demonstrates that under the right conditions, this technology can be used to help both patients and practitioners.”

“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,” Researcher Sabine Pahl said. “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 health care situations.”

The research team, from the Universities of Plymouth, Exeter and Birmingham, hope to now investigate whether Virtual Wembury can help patients in other medical contexts and whether certain additions to the virtual environment could make the experience even better.

The research was published in Environment and Behavior (doi: 10.1177/0013916517710077).  


A visit to virtual Wembury beach. Courtesy of University of Plymouth and Andrew Gould.

Research & TechnologyeducationDisplaysimagingcamerasmedicalvirtual realityVR

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