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Escape From Reality ‘It’s More Like Being In Your Living Room’ Than In The Dentist’s Office

Fri., April 5, 1996


The word strikes fear in many people, evoking images of long needles and a whirring drill.

“Some remember the days when the office had a spittoon, the dentist had his foot on your chest and the patient was in the chair for four hours,” said James Robson, a Hayden dentist and president of the Idaho Dental Association.

Thankfully, times have changed, Robson said. Dentistry has gone full tilt into a comfort revolution. Dentists have polished their chair-side manners, have dressed up their offices and use high-tech gadgets to relax white-knuckled patients.

In Steve Anderson’s Sandpoint office, patients get a videocassette recorder and 20-inch television set in every room to watch their favorite movie. They also can strap on virtual-reality glasses and take a 3-D roller-coaster ride while getting a tooth fixed.

“These things are mainly a distraction to help people relax. It’s more like being in your living room than in a scary sterile atmosphere,” said Anderson, who, along with his staff, dresses in bright “scrubs” instead of starched-white uniforms.

“We want people to enjoy coming to the dentist,” he said.

Spokane dentist Philip Hudson advertises dentistry for the “21st century.” He has four sets of virtual-reality glasses which cost about $700 each.

The goggles fit on a patient’s head like a pair of eyeglasses. The patient stares into a miniature TV screen and gets stereo sound through two earpieces. With the glasses on, patients never see a needle or hear the high-speed drill.

“When you wear it, it looks like a 50-inch television six feet away from you,” Hudson said. “I have people watching a movie spontaneously break out laughing. They forget where they are. It can really take the edge off.”

Hudson keeps bungee-jumping and ski movies in his video library.

“We don’t do things the way we did 20 years ago. Dentists are starting to wake up and smell the roses,” Hudson said. “I have adults tell me all the time, ‘I wish you had this stuff when I was growing up.”’

John Ukich practices in Coeur d’Alene and specializes in children’s dentistry. At his office, kids get hand-held video games with TV screens in the ceiling. Art drawn by children soon will decorate all the walls.

Three or four children can be treated at the same time in an open room.

“A child may be frightened and the boy next to him will say, ‘Don’t worry - I had that done last week and it didn’t bother me at all.’ Kids will even go over and hold the hand of another child. It’s neat,” Ukich said. “Atmosphere can make a huge difference.”

So can the words dentists use. They avoid saying “needle.”

“Telling someone they are getting a shot raises the adrenaline flow about 10 times, and you lose them,” Ukich said.

Patients now get “tipped,” or numb. A child gets a squirt of “sleepy juice.” Patients don’t bleed; they “seep” or “leak.” And the word “drill” is taboo. Dentists prefer to call it a “hand piece” or a “tickler” that will “wash off Mr. Tooth Decay.”

“We are not lying; we are using terms people can relate to and understand. It alleviates their fears,” Ukich said.

“Dentists are becoming very tuned in to patients’ needs to be comfortable and get through their fear,” added Robson. “We have learned it’s not just the product we deliver but also the way we deliver it that is so important.”

Christine Dumas is a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association and faculty member at the University of Southern California. She teaches dentists how to deal with dental phobiacs through words and deeds.

“We are training dentists now to listen to patients and spend time with them before ever putting anything in their mouth,” she said.

“If you have someone who is scared, you can put goggles on them and antennas on their ears, but they still will be a terrified person with stuff on their face.”

Dentists are breaking out of their stereotypical bad-guy image, Dumas said. It’s being done partly by melding fun technology with functional technology to make procedures more pain-free.

A new tool called air abrasion is taking the place of drills. Dentists describe it as a glorified sandblaster which uses air to remove tooth decay and requires no Novocain.

Many dentists also use an oral camera, a toothbrush-sized wand inserted in the mouth. It magnifies pictures of a patient’s teeth, which then are shown on a TV screen.

The camera makes it easier to spot problems, and dentists can show patients cavities or cracked teeth. Brave patients actually can watch work being done inside their mouths on the TV screen.

“These tools take away fear of the unknown and give control back to the patient,” Dumas said. “They can choose to see in their mouth or watch a movie and enjoy all these cool, fun things over their heads.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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