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Treating anxious patients can be challenging and stressful for dentists. Showing empathy and putting patient needs first can go a long way in improving patient satisfaction and service. By Rashida Tayabali
Dental anxiety or dental fear is more common than people think. A study by The University of Adelaide found that high dental fear affects one in six Australian adults and one in 10 children. Dental fear is higher in some sub-groups; for example, one in three middle-aged women experience it.
Seeing patients with dental anxiety can be challenging and stressful for dentists as patients may prove difficult to treat properly or present with behavioural problems. The dentist may hesitate to bring up the patient’s concerns fearing this will be seen as an intrusion of their privacy. However, patients experiencing high dental fear regularly cancel or miss appointments. Avoiding dental appointments means they may appear with more serious problems later or need longer treatment time in the chair.
Research shows 85 per cent of the Australian adult population feels a little anxious about painful or uncomfortable dental procedures when visiting the dentist. Showing empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person— towards patients is an effective way to address concerns, deliver a personalised service and get more patient referrals.
Empathy in a clinical setting
Research shows that people’s fear of the dentist is shaped by how they perceive the dental environment, not just negative dental experiences. “Businesses invest resources in so many strategies to increase sales or bookings but forget the basics of what’s important to a customer. Empathy and focusing on patient needs can help practitioners improve the overall service experience and outcomes for all patients,” says Professor Liliana Bove, a service marketer with a special interest in empathy, from The University of Melbourne.
“Patients find it difficult to judge service levels because they lack the expertise to know if the treatment recommended is the best for them. Instead, they focus on the treatment process and environment; whether they were seen on time or had to wait. How clean was the clinic? Was the equipment modern? Did the dentist treat them like human beings and with care? The empathy shown through warmth, compassion, and concern can help practitioners meet patient needs and make them feel valued,” says Bove.
Patients with dental anxiety experience a sense of powerlessness and a lack of control while seated in a reclined position. The process can also feel unpredictable because the patient can’t see what’s happening inside their mouth. Having a dentist look around in the mouth cavity also feels like an intrusion into their personal space. Dental examination and treatment can also be a big concern for patients with a heightened disgust sensitivity.
Not all patients are willing to share information with their practitioners because they are embarrassed or afraid of being ridiculed. The reluctance to share their anxiety or fear can affect the quality of service and treatment options. Being empathetic can help dentists pinpoint the source of patient distress or discomfort so treatment and communication can be tailored to the patient’s needs.
Benefits of empathy
According to Bove, empathy is both a skill and a trait. If it doesn’t come naturally to a practitioner, it can be taught and practised. There are two types of empathy that can be used to improve patient service.
The first is affective empathy, also known as empathic concern. Affective empathy is the ability to sense and respond to the patient’s emotions without experiencing the trigger. If a patient presents with a tooth abscess, the dentist acknowledges the pain and discomfort without needing to experience it personally. Affective empathy drives the dentist to help rather than ignore what the patient is saying.
The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy or perspective-taking. It’s the ability to experience the patient’s situation as the patient would, not as they themselves would. For example, instead of judging why the patient has delayed treatment so long, or why they have an untreated abscess, the dentist listens to the patient’s backstory and tries to understand it from their perspective.
“Dental practitioners can better evaluate the potential adverse effects of their decisions and actions on the patient using empathy. Without empathy, the dentist may act on what they feel is the best treatment according to their training or decide on what to do if they are experiencing the problem. While these approaches could be morally right, they don’t achieve the best result for the patient because they don’t consider their mental state. It also makes the patient feel like an object or a number and makes them reluctant to return for more treatment,” says Bove.
How to show empathy
Bove’s advice is to practise active listening and try to decipher your patient’s body language during the consultation. “Encourage the patient to talk, and listen attentively to understand what they are saying and reflect on the information. It’ll help you recognise the patient’s emotions and perspective,” says Bove.
Reading body cues is another way for the practitioner to show sensitivity and adapt their treatment and communication to their patient’s behaviour. Receiving empathy from the practitioner encourages the patient to speak up and share essential information for the best treatment.
“Empathy involves listening to your patient’s backstory of how and why their dental health is in its current state. Empathy leads to trust and confidence and encourages patients to make regular dental appointments because they are receiving more than just treatment from their practitioner. Help your dental practice thrive by listening, observing, and empathising with your patients,” says Bove.