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NIH spending $2.5 million attempting to make adults less nervous about the dentist

It is the largest NIH grant that has ever been given to Temple University's Dental school

Updated: January 31, 2021 - 6:27am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Golden Horseshoe is a weekly designation from Just the News intended to highlight egregious examples of wasteful taxpayer spending by the government. The award is named for the horseshoe-shaped toilet seats for military airplanes that cost the Pentagon a whopping $640 each back in the 1980s. 

This week, our award is going to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for spending more than $1 million on an initiative to help Americans overcome their fear of the dentist.

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research — a division of the NIH — awarded the Temple University Kornberg School of Dentistry the grant, the full value of which is $2.59 million, the largest NIH grant ever received by the school.

Supported by the grant, dentistry and psychology researchers at the school are collaborating to conduct a five-year clinical trial involving 450 patients.

At the helm of the project, now in its second year, are Marisol Tellez Merchan, associate professor at the dental school, and Richard Heimberg, a psychology professor at the university's college of liberal arts and head of Temple's Adult Anxiety Clinic.

According to Merchan, about 10-20% of patients experience some form of dental anxiety. "As long as anxiety is greater than pain, you see avoidance," she said. "Avoiding dental care leads to delayed treatments, which are typically more invasive. Our aim is to reduce anxiety so patients can get thee care they need."

Together, the professors are using taxpayer dollars to determine "whether it's possible to put a psychologist's tool in the hands of dental assistants," says Heimberg.

The grant describes the project as "a brief Internet-based cognitive behavioral intervention for the treatment of impairing dental anxiety among those seeking dental care." What that means in practice, according to the professors, is that they are informing dental patients about the concept of dental anxiety and then showing them videos about specific areas of concern, for instance, anxiety around cavity fillings, root canals, and cleanings.

Shortly before a dental treatment begins, each patient is shown three videos per topic in an effort to ease them into the procedure. Heimberg says the goal is to "change anxious thoughts into coping thoughts." 

The professors' noble effort to cure American adults of their dentophobia notwithstanding, the question arises: If patients are already at the dentist by the time they are watching these videos, doesn't that mean they are effectively over the hump?

It's one thing to spend American taxpayer dollars to encourage Americans to schedule and attend regular dental appointments, but another thing altogether to squander money on making people feel slightly better about being at the dentist once they've already arrived.

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