Using biophilia to manage patient anxiety

Whether it be for a routine cleaning or a surgical extraction, many patients face fear and anxiety when visiting the dentist. According to a December 2013 Australian Dental Journal study, it has been estimated that one in seven people exhibit a high level of dental fear. To combat these feelings, professionals have resorted to a range of techniques to curb a patient’s stress in a dental setting. Interestingly, some dentists have taken an innovative and modern approach to managing patient fear. By highlighting concepts of nature in office spaces, practice owners use “biophilia” for a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

In an age where many feel chained to their computer, Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson hypothesizes an “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” He coined the term “biophilia,” which describes the human tendency to be closely associated with nature. In a 2017 study, researchers found that patients receiving dental care while wearing a virtual reality headset projecting coastal images reduced experienced and recollected pain. By incorporating biophilic design in dental offices, practitioners aim to satisfy this inherent human need while treating dental ailments.

“Patients ask about our moss walls every single day,” says Dr. Christopher Ryba, a practice owner from Cleveland who is all too familiar with biophilic practices. “Having worked in several offices before opening my own, I can attest that people respond to the office environment. The moss walls and greenery really do have a calming effect. By designing a space that promotes stress reduction, patient encounters are calmer and more comfortable for both the patient and provider, even before treatment is rendered.” 

By remaining involved in the office design process from the ground up, Dr. Ryba spent a lot of time creating a one-of-a-kind atmosphere at Ryba Dentistry. “The layout was designed to preserve views of Lake Erie through the hallway windows,” he describes, “and two art nooks with special spotlighting are filled with pieces by a local artist that reference the shapes of the Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River water basins as viewed from above.”

Many professionals prefer the clean and polished look of a dental office, but fail to incorporate any connection to nature despite the benefits. To harness the power of biophilia, professionals can add a touch of greenery or natural light into their office spaces while maintaining the clinical and sterile look of a dental office. Many achieve this by balancing the usual clean and crisp tones of a dental office with hints of green spaces, natural light operatories or the addition of an aquarium.

We should not underestimate the intimate interconnection of humans and nature. The phenomenon of biophilia has been studied extensively in the past and has shown evidence of stress reduction, increased pain tolerance and higher job satisfaction of employees. Practice owners should consider adding concepts of biophilia to their arsenal, as it can benefit the practitioner and, more importantly, the patient.

~Poonam Furmah, Case Western ’23

Poonam Furmah

Poonam Furmah is a second-year dental student at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine. She is actively involved with the community as the dental director of the Student-Run Health Clinic and a student consultant for the Ohio Dental Association.

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