We've come leaps and bounds in dentistry in only a brief time, and the growth has not stopped. The tele dentistry industry is projected to grow by 16% through 2030, and this is mainly driven by advancements in technology that improve access and enhance the patient experience. Virtual reality in dentistry is an area gaining attention for those two reasons.
Highly detailed, intuitive programs can help us address the third of the US population that goes without dental care every year. Because while their reasons for avoiding care may be different, there is a way that virtual reality in dentistry can help.
Why People Avoid the Dentist: Access, Anxiety, and Pain
The dental office is such a point of anxiety for people, it is a cliché. Half the time, if you see a dentist in a movie or TV show, they're the villain. But where did that reputation come from? It's hardly like dentists are people who just enjoy inflicting pain on others, no matter how funny that plays on TV.
It is because it's an inherently frightening process for many. Dental fear affects 36% of the population – with 12% reporting extreme anxiety. When that rises to the level of dental phobia, we start seeing patients avoid care, period. That causes their oral hygiene to suffer, which increases pain and anxiety, leading to a vicious circle where instead of following basic preventative care, the patient now requires extensive and even more anxiety-inducing treatment.
Even for those without anxiety, who would happily see the dentist if they could, there's an issue of access. It is so common, there's a name for it: dental deserts. These are areas with dental health care professional shortages in the US, with less than 1 provider per 4,000 people. Only 30% of those who live in these areas get their dental needs met.
Issues with anxiety, access, or both are the primary reasons many do not seek regular treatment. However, advances in technology are helping us overcome these problems and get patients back on track.
How Virtual Reality in Dentistry Overcomes Treatment Barriers
Virtual reality in dentistry cannot replace the actual treatment needed, but what it can do is enhance the experience, so the patient feels less burdened by those visits. One of those ways is through immersive technology that helps reduce fear while the patient is undergoing treatment.
Dental VR to Alleviate Pain and Anxiety
This is the most traditional use of dental VR. As our perception of pain is often what makes it more severe, VR replaces that perception with distraction. The patient wears a VR headset as they receive treatment. They are emersed in a relaxing scene, while the clinician does their work. This was a strategy tested back in 2014, with some pretty amazing results. Subjects showed significant reductions in their reported fear, as well as physiological improvement including reduced heart rates and calmer, more consistent pulse readings.
Of course, today's technology has far improved the experience. Our headsets are lighter and less intrusive. Our software programs are more detailed and intuitive. Finally, this technology is far more affordable and accessible for dental offices, making it easier to enjoy the benefits of VR without a major investment. VR headsets are available for under $1000 and can easily be incorporated into the clinical environment.
Using Virtual Reality in Dentistry as a Diagnostic Tool
A sizable portion of patient care comes from the diagnostic segment of treatment. The more complete the picture the dentist has of the patient's health, the better armed they are to make decisions affecting it.
Consider creating a dental model of the patient's teeth. Traditionally, the office would use imaging and molds to build their model, which often requires a considerable time investment and multiple visits from the patient. However, with VR applications, the program leverages laser scans that are fed into the software, which creates a realistic VR model the dentist can interact with. It can go even further, connecting to a 3D printer that will provide a detailed physical model of the patient's teeth.
Augmented reality (AR) is another incredible tool in the diagnostic process, as it allows dentists to bring digital elements into their physical environment. In this, the dentist could take that model created in the VR scenario and have it on a tablet or screen they can interact with as they complete procedures, providing greater visibility while minimizing patient pain and time.
These tools allow patients to complete their dental visits faster, and in fewer trips. They make the diagnostic process more thorough and less prone to error. Dentists can also view these models from anywhere, allowing them to remotely diagnose patients and plan treatment.
Virtual reality in dentistry is improving patient experiences and helping dentists treat high-need communities. This is also a field that is still in its infancy. As technology improves, we may find VR to be the next industry disruptor.
To learn more about innovations like virtual reality in dentistry, check out our range of seminars by industry leaders and experts. Or, if you are interested in using technology as a tool for total practice management, consider Spear Practice Solutions.