Oral health students test their nerve in the virtual world

Tuesday, 30 October 2018


The dentist’s chair may soon be less daunting, with a ground-breaking simulation from the University of Newcastle providing Oral Health Therapy students a unique opportunity to practice administering dental injections in a virtual environment before they enter the patient clinic.

Third year Oral Health Therapy student Meshal

A first-of-its-kind for the field, the initiative is the brainchild of Mrs Denise Higgins, Lecturer in Oral Health and Simulation Coordinator. Mrs Higgins said that, before the VR program, students would attend a lecture and watch a demo before practicing on each other and then treating real patients.

“From listening to student feedback over the years, I knew they felt they were missing something between the theory and practicing on their peers and patients,” Mrs Higgins said.

“Administering anesthetic needles is an incredibly intricate process, and not something many feel confident doing without extensive practice. Ultimately, we want our patients to feel safe, comfortable and at-ease, which is why it’s crucial to ensure our students feel confident entering the patient clinic.”

The program, a collaboration between the University’s IT Services Innovation Team and School of Health Sciences, aims to bridge the gap between the classroom and clinic to ensure students are confident and capable when administering delicate anesthetic needles.

Utilising an Oculus headset, the wearer is transported to a virtual dental clinic, where a patient awaits a procedure.

Students can access a range of scenarios, including procedures requiring palatal injections to the roof of the mouth and interdental injections between the teeth. A target point gives students the ideal mark to place the needle and a virtual gauge displays the milliliters being administered once the user engages the needle.

Similarly to the successful Road to Birth program launched earlier in 2018, the patient’s skin can be scaled back to expose the working nerves and capillaries in order to familiarise students with key anatomical features.

Innovation Team Manager, Mr Craig Williams, said the Virtual Anesthesia program was developed to imitate real-world situations students would face in the workplace.

“What’s fantastic about this new program is we’ve been able to replicate typical scenarios an oral health practitioner would perform on a daily basis – things like administering dental injections in areas that would help anaesthetise nerves for pain management and patient comfort,” Mr Williams said.

“Simulation is a wonderful teaching resource as students can participate in a controlled, standardised and safe environment. They can stop the simulation at any stage to review their progress or if they need to turn to teachers and peers for support.

“We hope the tool will be useful on a global scale and may eventually apply to anyone working in the field.”

No stranger to innovation, Mrs Higgins has worked tirelessly with the Health Sciences team at the University of Newcastle to revolutionise the Bachelor of Oral Health Therapy in recent years, introducing ground-breaking new equipment to complement student studies.

As part of her PhD, Mrs Higgins has explored a myriad of inventive options to enhance the teaching and learning experience, including developing her own simulator model mouths made from synthetic ‘skin’ which replicates real human tissue for students to practice on.

“The material is made out of salt, water and fibre, which makes a material similar to the lining inside the mouth,” Mrs Higgins said.

“There are simulators on the market that are capable of receiving an injection, but you’re not able to administer the anesthetic solution. With these models, which have a life-like capability, students can inject as many milliliters of local anaesthetic as is required for practicing their technique”.

“I developed my idea from proof of concept, to playdough model, to design document and was able to collaborate with a company who brought it to life. To our knowledge, nothing of its kind exists in the same format we have here – the whole process has revolutionized our teaching and has been incredibly rewarding.”

Acting Head of Discipline, Associate Professor Janet Wallace, said the steps the University was taking to introduce simulation into the curriculum was solidifying its position as a leader in this field.

“Students are really benefitting from the fact that the equipment they’re using is new, different, and fully interactive, and it is supporting their theory with practical experience. It’s visual, can give them feedback on their efforts, gives them confidence and a competitive edge when they enter the workforce,” Associate Professor Wallace said.

“They’re much more confident to be able to work on patients and, with the aid of simulation, can perform tasks at a safe level for themselves and for the patients. At the end of the day, our goal is to produce work-ready graduates who are going to perform at their best, and this is helping us do that.”

Reflecting on her journey so far, Mrs Higgins said she had been inspired to achieve her goals with the support of a tight-knit community at the University’s Ourimbah campus.

“We’re encouraged to think outside the box and implement new ideas to enhance teaching and learning here at the University of Newcastle, and I am proud to say I work alongside some of the brightest minds in Oral Health,” Mrs Higgins said.

“Our second and third year students are trialling the technology this semester, and so far we’ve had really positive feedback on how the virtual simulation is supporting their studies. I’m really looking forward to seeing positive student outcomes as well as continuing to investigate new ways to enhance teaching and learning experiences.”

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