Dental Students Learn How to Use Virtual Reality to Ease Dental Anxiety

Dentistry Today
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Students at the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine now can take a course that teaches them how to use virtual reality headsets in their treatment to help patients overcome their dental anxiety, which can affect up to 60% of people, the school reports. 

“I’ve always known that for some patients, distraction is the best medicine for dental anxiety,” said Shantanu Lal, DDS, a pediatric dentist and associate professor who created the course. “I’ve experimented with video eyewear before but the immersive experience of VR takes it to a whole new level.” 

Launched in late January, the VR Training Initiative teaches dental students how to use the technology to create a sensor adaptive virtual reality (SAVR) environment, an immersive digital space incorporating healing elements of nature and tailored to a patient’s personality and anxiety levels. 

The goal is to encourage relaxation and well-being in adolescent and adult patients. The course combines online, self-paced learning followed by hands-on clinical instruction. 

One of the earliest applications for VR in healthcare was to treat different types of phobias or help people recover from post-traumatic stress disorder by processing the triggering experience. Lal thought VR could similarly help distract people with dental phobias. 

Lal started using 3-D video eyewear in his private pediatric dentistry practice in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City, especially when working with anxious patients, in 2015. He credits a grant he received as the impetus for creating the new VR training program to a Columbia University Provost’s Teaching and Learning Grant.

“The next step is in the clinic, where we demonstrate use on a patient under direct supervision,” Lal said.

The grant provided stipends for several current students to help Lal develop pedagogy and training modules. The process took 12 months to complete. Two of the five students who helped Lal had completed independent research projects investigating the effects of VR in dental medicine.

In fact, their work was recognized with a research award and selected to compete at an American Association for Dental Research competition. The students’ projects and the larger VR initiative reflect the school’s direction, said Christian S. Stohler, DMD, DrMedDent, dean of the College of Dental Medicine.

“The VR Training Initiative is a prime example of how we can lead innovation in oral healthcare,” said Stohler. “And by involving students in the research and development process, we inspire the next generation to be leaders in their own right.”

Daniel Nassimi of the class of 2020, who helped develop the clinical practices and protocols module of the course, says his only exposure to virtual reality before enrolling at Columbia was playing video games with his nieces and nephews. As he began conducting research on helping patients manage anxiety, his advisor, Lynn Tepper, clinical professor of behavioral sciences, urged him to approach Lal about incorporating VR.

Nassimi’s resulting study collected vital signs and subjective reports of anxiety among 10 patients who used a Google Daydream headset with relaxing imagery during dental procedures. All of the participants had lower blood pressure and heart rate after procedures during which they used VR than when their exams began. 

What really sold Nassimi on the technology and spurred his participation in the course designed to bring along his classmates was the dramatic effect he witnessed in one of his most anxious patients. During a root canal with only a local anesthetic and a VR headset, the man fell asleep.

“He was snoring,” said Nassimi, “and we had to wake him up.”

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