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A team of researchers at the Universities of Birmingham, Plymouth, and Exeter carried out a study as to whether virtual reality experiences could reduce anxiety in patients undergoing dental procedures such as fillings and tooth extractions.

Patients from at a dental practice took part in the study, which saw them being randomly selected to have standard care as normal, or instead be given technology which would see them experience either a ‘walk’ around a virtual reality city or a walk around a virtual version of Wembury beach in Devon.

Results found that those who ‘walked’ around Wembury beach 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.

The beach was the creation of Professor Robert Stone and the Human Interface Technologies (HIT) Team at the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

He said that 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, and marine environments in particular, can help reduce stress and anxiety.

Professor Stone added: “This study is one of a number of research projects that the HIT team has been involved with over the last seven years as part of our work to address how to exploit virtual reality recreations of areas of natural beauty to help patients recover from traumatic incidents including operations in a diverse range of settings from intensive care units to elderly care homes.

“This is especially relevant for city-based institutions, where there may be an absence of natural environments visible from wards, or in the vicinity of the hospital or care home.

“This study reflects previous research suggesting that exposing individuals to natural environments, such as rural and coastal settings and smaller-scale urban areas with natural features can promote stress reduction.”

Dr Karin Tanja-Dijkstra, lead author of the study published in Environment & Behavior , 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.”

Dr Mathew White, of University of Exeter’s Medical School , said: “We have done a lot of work recently which suggests that people are happiest and most relaxed when they are at the seaside, it seemed only natural to investigate whether we could bottle this experience and use it to help people in potentially stressful healthcare contexts.”

Dr Sabine Pahl, of the University of Plymouth , added: “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.

“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.”