Managing anxious dental patients

0
772

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

managing anxious dental patients
Photo: estradaanton – 123RF

Going to the dentist is anxiety-inducing for many people, let alone when they’ve experienced dental trauma. Acting calmly, slowly and allowing time for big decisions helps to promote positive long-term outcomes—for the patient and the practice. By Angela Tufvesson

When a patient comes into a practice suffering from dental trauma, they can be panicked, emotional and terrified. It can be even worse if it’s a parent bringing in their injured child. 

What can practice staff say and do to calm the situation and support the patient? How do you explain long-term treatment plans, and the costs involved, without causing a freak-out? 

The trick is to do everything your traumatised patient is not: be calm, act slowly and allow plenty of time to explain the situation.

Keep calm

Projecting a sense of calm starts at the very moment a patient walks in the door of the practice with chipped teeth or a tooth knocked loose.

“It’s a matter of having a calm front desk person—someone who has some empathy and who can say, ‘We’re going to get you in as soon as we can. We’ve had a fair bit of experience with this, and we’ll sort you out’,” says dental surgeon Dr Steven Parker from Wisdom Teeth Centre, a practice restricted to oral surgery and sedation.

In the consultation room, it’s important for the dentist to calmly focus on the patient’s immediate needs, he explains. 

“When someone’s in pain and they’re anxious, they’re not going to remember anything you say because their mind’s going a million miles an hour and they just want to get this sorted. At this stage, what you need to do is reassure them that you’re going to look after them, you’re going to do your very best, and that you will get them out of pain.”

Because it’s often crucial to start procedures much more quickly for dental trauma than other oral health problems, Dr Lincoln Harris, co-founder of RipeGlobal, a cloud-based learning platform for dentists, and clinical director of Harris Dental Boutique, recommends focusing on “acting competent” to make up for complex explanations that time doesn’t permit and to alleviate anxiety. 

“With dental trauma it’s usually the front teeth, and patients can experience anxiety around whether they’re going to be disfigured or lose their smile,” he says. “The thing that helps the most in this situation is a person who acts calm and confident. 

“When you look at someone, the only way you’ve got of telling whether they’re calm and confident is if they look calm and confident. You don’t have to feel calm and confident to look calm and confident.”

Listening to the patient’s concerns and worries will also help to ease anxiety, which Dr Harris says affects more than 50 per cent of people who visit the dentist. 

“The most important thing for someone who’s anxious is that they feel listened to, and the number one way you tell someone you’re not listening is to say things that are meant to be helpful but are actually dismissive of the patient’s fears like, ‘You’ll be fine, it’ll be easy’,” he says. 

Slow down

Pace matters, too. This means not going at the speed you might be used to. Dr Harris recommends going slowly when you’re treating patients with dental trauma. 

When someone’s in pain and they’re anxious, they’re not going to remember anything you say because their mind’s going a million miles an hour and they just want to get this sorted. At this stage, what you need to do is reassure them that you’re going to look after them, you’re going to do your very best, and that you will get them out of pain.

Dr Steven Parker, dental surgeon, Wisdom Teeth Centre

“In most practices it’s quite common to be really fast,” he says. “The assistant sits the patient down and asks a bunch of questions. Then the dentist comes in, tips the patient upside down and sticks things in their mouth, and says a whole bunch of dental mumbo jumbo. 

“If there’s anything that will increase their anxiety terrifically, it’s doing a whole bunch of stuff before you even talk to the patient.”

Conversely, he explains, a dentist who speaks calmly and slowly, doesn’t seem in a rush to get the patient into the chair and spends as much time as possible talking through what’s going to happen is more likely to generate a more positive outcome. 

It might sound counterintuitive, but there are business benefits to this approach, too—especially when you’re devising ongoing treatment. 

“The biggest impact that you can have on building your practice with the sorts of patients who actually need significant work, which are mostly anxious patients and patients with big problems, is to slow down,” Dr Harris says.  

“Slow down your consultation, slow down your treatment planning, slow down your treatment plan delivery. Be like a specialist surgeon—no specialist surgeon does elective work rapidly.”

Play the long game

When the initial trauma has subsided and you’re focused on treatment planning, Dr Harris recommends considering one fundamental question: what are the patient’s long-term goals? Perhaps they want to retain their teeth or have them out, or something else altogether. 

Next, complete your examinations and ascertain what is technically possible. “Is it possible to give a patient what they want?” he says. “If it’s not, like if they’ve just had their front teeth smashed out and it’s impossible to fix with implants, then don’t get them excited about implants.”

This is when you can start to talk about the costs involved—gently. “Once I’ve outlined what’s possible, I also give a range of costs, and it’s a big range,” Dr Harris says. 

Informed consent is key at this point as the patient needs time to think over your proposal. “Depending on what damage has been done through the trauma, there could be a considerable expense,” Dr Parker says. 

“Let the patient know there are options on how to get the work done, and that they may not need to get it all done at once. Explain to them that when they’re ready to move ahead, you’ll be there for them.”

In the meantime, “go ahead and do whatever is urgent or necessary to get them healthy”, Dr Harris says. 

“This helps you build a relationship with the patient. After that and having done all your planning, it’s 60 to 90 days later. You can finalise your treatment plan and give them the actual cost.”  

Previous articleDentists back doctors to fight for payroll tax exemption
Next articleThe culture of your dental practice

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here