Fear not! Helping patients deal with dental anxiety

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dealing with dental anxiety
Drs Sim and Chan aim to leave their mark and create a legacy in the dental industry. Photography: Eamon gallagher

For cosmetic dentists Drs Reuben Sim and May Chan, helping patients deal with dental anxiety has evolved into a successful business model. By Frank Leggett

For patients who suffer from dental anxiety, a trip to the dentist means experiencing fear, stress, apprehension and tension. Their responses can range from feeling uncomfortable to a severe dental phobia. Often, there’s an expectation of pain or loss of control. Common triggers include needles and injections, drills, the smell of a practice and a fear of embarrassment. Unfortunately, this irrational—but very real—fear can lead to sufferers delaying dental appointments or avoiding them all together.

Thankfully, there are dentists such as the husband-and-wife co-founders of Dental Boutique in Melbourne, Dr Reuben Sim and Dr May Chan, who are committed to helping their patients overcome dental anxiety.

“There are many causes of dental anxiety but, generally, it stems from the fear of the unknown,” says Dr Sim. “People are unaware of how much pain they will experience or what actually happens once they’re in the chair. Often, they are concerned about how much the procedure will cost. If their teeth are in bad condition, they’re worried about being judged and embarrassed. They’re also fearful of losing control of the situation.”

Technology and empathy

Whenever a patient visits a practice, reducing and demystifying the unknowns is a great way to make things easier for the dentally anxious. Over the past 20 years, striking advances in technology have also given dentists practical tools to help alleviate fear in patients. The friendly shape of the Wand STA, for example, replaces syringes that can trigger those with needle phobias. Lasers can replace drills and their associated sounds. Websites can clearly illustrate what to expect through photos and videos. Headphones, audio, televisions and scented oil diffusers can help break the association with traditional dental clinics.

“Technology can be a great help in alleviating fear and we use it extensively,” says Dr May Chan. “The thing that makes the biggest impact on patients, however, is just plain old empathy. We treat them how we would like to be treated and actively try to make a connection. This connection is the basis of everything we do. From the first phone call to the final visit, we ensure they receive respect and empathetic understanding. The most important thing for people, but particularly those with any form of anxiety, is how you make them feel.”

Non-judgemental service

A sad outcome for people with dental anxiety is that they visit the dentist less, or not at all, and their teeth suffer as a consequence. They’re often embarrassed, stigmatised and fearful of judgement. This creates a vicious circle that make them even less inclined to visit the dentist.

“They already feel like they’re being constantly judged and we dentists have to be careful not to impact negatively on them,” says Dr Chan. “Comments like, ‘I see you haven’t been brushing or flossing’, ‘What happened to your teeth?’ or ‘You haven’t seen a dentist for a while?’ serve no purpose. They just embarrass the patient and put them off from ever returning.”

The thing that makes the biggest impact on patients, however, is just plain old empathy. We treat them how we would like to be treated and actively try to make a connection. This connection is the basis of everything we do.

Dr May Chan, co-founder, Dental Boutique

Dr Sim adds, “From the moment the patient walks in the door, there must be no judgement from the receptionist, the dental assistant or the dentist. Ideally, you want to supply such an affirming experience, they will feel safe enough to open up and share their story.”

A new way

Drs Sim and Chan spent years working in different practices before opening Dental Boutique in Melbourne in 2013. While these other practices were doing good work, they both felt there was a lack of focus on customer care. They also found an unwillingness to embrace cosmetic and implant work at a level they envisaged. 

“We created Dental Boutique to fulfil all our expectations,” says Dr Sim. “It wasn’t easy. On the day we opened, we had no patients and no marketing budget. We photocopied flyers and went around the neighbourhood putting them in letterboxes.”

From the outset, Dental Boutique has been dedicated to an outstanding patient experience and was soon renowned for its cosmetic work. Dr Chan’s passion for this type of dentistry stems from an incident when she was nine years old.

“I had an accident where I broke my front teeth,” she explains. “For years, I was terribly self-conscious. I know what it’s like to hide your smile and getting my teeth fixed properly changed my life. That experience inspired me to become a cosmetic dentist. It also makes me a more empathetic dentist as I know what a profound effect dentistry can have.”

Vanity or necessity

A common misconception of cosmetic dentistry is that it’s nothing more than a vanity project. People think it’s just celebrities chasing the ‘Hollywood smile’ when it’s so much more than that. 

“Every single day, patients leave our practice crying happy tears,” says Dr Sim. “They’re confident and ready to face the world. They’ll be able to socialise without hiding their smile behind their hand. They’ll be able to eat, laugh and fully interact with life.”

From 2013 until 2021, Drs Sim and Chan streamlined and refined techniques and workflows at Dental Boutique. They instituted a system that produces high-quality cosmetic and implant work while maximising the skills of the dentists. The practice grew with some patients travelling great distances to access their services. Then they decided to expand the business. 

“In the past two years, we’ve opened Dental Boutique in five locations,” says Dr Chan. “Along with our Melbourne base, we have practices in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, Mornington and Geelong. We’re also looking at another couple of sites that could be open in a few months. Having successfully fine-tuned our processes, systems and protocols, we can replicate it in other locations.”

On the job training

A large part of Dental Boutique’s success is due to their patient experience and clinical outcomes. The third key factor is their business systems and efficiency. They place a high emphasis on training team members and dentists, and have created an in-house training program for all levels of staff.

“When a dentist comes to work with us, it doesn’t matter if they’re three years out or have 15 years’ experience,” says Dr Sim. “Everyone completes the training program. It takes between two and four weeks, followed by a mentoring program, customised to their learning journey.”

The outcome of this business model is that they are attracting talented dentists with a similar mindset and work ethos as Drs Sim and Chan. This has seen them rapidly expand the business.

“Many dentists want to produce amazing, quality work and our client base allows them to do just that,” says Dr Chan. “We’ve created an environment where they use their dental skills and training, and we look after the rest. An implant surgeon is just wasting their skill set if they’re doing hygiene appointments. We ensure they are performing high-quality work on patients who are deserving of their talents.”

Drs Sim and Chan’s ambition is to leave their mark and create a legacy in the dental industry. To date, Dental Boutique has approximately 200 team members in six practices across Australia.

“We believe we have something to give,” says Dr Sim. “Not just for patients but for dentists, too. Our goal is to reach more people and change more lives. We partner with principal dentists who share our vision. We are extremely proud of our team of leaders, clinicians and the Dental Boutique team.”

“Corporates now have a huge footprint across Australia and the world,” says Dr Chan. “We’re privately owned and operated but I truly believe our model produces better dentistry. We want to extend our reach as much as possible, fulfilling the needs of our patients, our dentists and ourselves.”

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