Probably very few people actually like to go to the dentist. Most of us just grin and bear it. But despite recent advances in dental technology and pain control, more than 20% of the population in the U.S. avoids going to the dentist, and getting much-needed care, because of fear.
That finding is one of the results of the first major epidemiological study of dental fear in the U.S. in several decades, conducted by UW professor Peter Milgrom and colleagues at the UW Dental Fears Research Clinic (DFRC). The clinic was established in 1982 to serve anxious, phobic, and mentally ill patients from a multistate region. It is the largest such clinical service in the world, and has spawned more than a dozen other similar clinics across the country.
Despite the fact that fear of dental treatment is widely acknowledged by the general public, surprisingly little research had been carried out into its origins, treatment, and prevention. The DFRC has brought clinical psychologists, anesthesiologists, and dentists together to conduct research in this area and to provide training and patient care.
Milgrom, together with Philip Weinstein and Tracy Getz, produced the first textbook for use in dentistry that focuses on dental fears, and developed the first dental student course in the nation on this subject.
A recent research study conducted by the Clinic in conjunction with the UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences demonstrated a relationship in the Group Health population between sexual and physical abuse of women, and dental fears.
Dental fears are a major reason why low income families avoid the dentist. Researchers at the Clinic assisted the Washington State Medicaid program in a complete overhaul of its children's dental services, with emphasis on prevention of dental problems in early childhood and on cost effectiveness issues.
Researchers at the Clinic also developed a computer-aided program to help patients overcome dental fears. Tests continue at the Clinic to evaluate the efficacy of sedative drugs in the treatment of dental fear.