Digital Nitrous: How Virtual Reality is Improving the Dental Patient Experience
OperaVR and its virtual reality headsets are revolutionizing how the dental industry looks at patient stressors and pain management.
“I’m on a mission to stop people from saying I hate going to the dentist.”
Dr. Bryan Laskin’s message is clear, short and to the point. The only thing stopping him - years and years of cultural anxiety about what it means to go to the dentist. He’s got a clear message with a very daunting challenge in front of him.
Laskin, a Minneapolis-based dentist of more than 20 years, knows reaching his goal requires addressing two major issues, patient anxiety and getting doctors to understand the level of that anxiety.
“One of things that I’ve realized is that dentists understand that people have anxiety, but we’ve become so desensitized to it over time,” said Laskin. “I feel like, as a profession, we have to focus on patients’ experiences and reducing patient anxiety across the board to truly elevate our quality of care.”
His answer: virtual reality.
About two years ago, while attending a conference on virtual reality, Laskin learned about the decades of research showing how effective virtual reality can be in a medical setting for reducing anxiety and helping with pain management.
“If you look at a functionable MRI of a brain with a pain stimulus in VR, not in VR and under the influence of morphine, VR and morphine look the same,” said Laskin. “Specifically in dentistry, it’s proven to be as effective as nitrous oxide at reducing anxiety, including being shown as the most effective way to treat anxiety in kids.”
He was sold. From that moment on, he wanted to help promote the advantages of VR in dentistry. He created OperaVR, a company that sells virtual reality headsets that can be worn while patients are in a dental chair.
“I call it digital nitrous,” said Laskin. “It’s the only true drug-free sedative that I know is out there. It still blows me away every day. It’s easy to say it is as effective as nitrous oxide, but when you’re using it in practice, it’s so amazing to see it work.”
Listen to testimonials from actual patients who used OperaVR.
While there still isn’t a complete understanding of why the brain reacts this way to virtual reality, Laskin has his theories.
“There’s an S-curve of pain with the amount of stimulus on the bottom and the pain responses on the top,” he said. “There are certain things that will shift that pain response to the right, where more stimulus is needed for a response and certain things that will shift the pain response to the left, where less stimulus is needed for a response. Like morphine and nitrous, VR shifts that pain curve to the right. There’s a physiological response where more pain is required to gain a response.”
He also believes in virtual reality’s ability to create, what he calls, involuntary mindfulness.
“If you study mediation, you can’t be depressed and grateful at the same time,” said OperaVR’s creator. “It’s proven that if you meditate on gratitude, you’ll be happier. Similarly, you can’t be relaxed and anxious or perceiving pain at the same time. What we are doing is overwhelming people’s awareness with calming imagery and sound to the point where their brain can’t perceive pain and anxiety in the same way as if they were not using the VR.”
Since he started using virtual reality in his own practice more than two years ago, he’s noticed the positive results in his patients, including one patient that particularly stands out in his mind.
During Give Kids a Smile Day, Dr. Laskin came into a treatment center to help a child who needed fillings and an extraction. Having had other fillings done at a different dental office a few weeks prior, the child was crying and screaming about how much he hated needles. One simple question helped calm the child.
“No worries, buddy. Do you want to watch flowers or butterflies?” Laskin asked his patient.
The OperaVR headsets are completely controlled by a web remote, so the doctor has full control over what the patient is seeing. After putting the VR headset on the child, Laskin noticed an immediate calming effect. He could see the physical reaction as the kid’s shoulders became less tense. The extraction was an ankylosed baby tooth, so VR’s effects would definitely be put to the test.
“I ended up really having to crank on the tooth to get it out, but this same kid that was screaming and crying just minutes before, is now completely zoned out and enjoying some flowers,” said the doctor.
OperaVR is also perfect for routine dental visits, as post-op instructional videos can be shown to the patient while a hygienist is performing a cleaning.
“One of the reasons why people hate going to the dentist is because they don’t like being lectured, so we do the lecturing for you,” said Laskin. “A hygienist will appear in the VR headset and highlight the ways that this patient can better their oral health. This is a time saver, makes the messaging consistent and saves the patient the embarrassment of the one-on-one conversation.”
Laskin not only noticed virtual reality was improving his patients’ experiences, but monetarily helping his practice, especially in marketing when mentioning VR in his ads.
“There’s really no way to have a negative return on investment with VR,” he said. “It’s inexpensive, and the only way to have a negative ROI is to not tell anyone that you have it. If people know that you have it, they will ask for it. A new patient would rather go to an office that cares about anxiety to the point that they’ve invested in VR, than not.”
If you’d like more information or are interested in purchasing a VR headset from OperaVR, please visit DigitalNitrous.com for all the details.