© Monkey Business Images | Dreamstime.com
While dental professionals need to be masked within practices, social media, name badges, and other communications are great ways to still show smiling faces.

Unmasking dentistry during COVID-19

Aug. 20, 2020
In the era of increased PPE, building connections with patients can present real challenges. Marketing expert Michael Ventriello shares a few updates practices can make to add a personal touch to patient communications.

After my 90-year-old mother was diagnosed with COVID-19 and completed her two-week hospital stay, she was transferred to a physical therapy facility to help her regain muscle strength.

I spoke to my mom’s physical therapist, Jennifer, almost daily to check on her progress. During one of our first conversations, I asked Jennifer how COVID-19 changed how she does her job. She explained that because of the quarantine, she could only administer physical therapy in patients’ rooms, which required some improvising. She also said that since she and her PT colleagues are now required to wear masks during all treatment sessions, they are trying to compensate for the reduced ability to connect with their patients by wearing a photo on the front of their scrubs. “I think it’s helping us alleviate patient anxiety and build trust.”

“What a great idea!” I said. My initial reaction was reinforced by subsequent conversations with my mom. She spoke about the care she was getting in favorable terms, despite adding that, “Woo-boy, Jennifer knocked me out with the exercises today. I needed a nap!” The fact that she and her physical therapist were on a first-name basis and my mom spoke about her in a positive manner as opposed to how she referred to her hospital caregivers as just “the nurse” or “the doctor,” even though they provided excellent care, was not lost on me.

I thought to myself, “There must be a link between facial recognition and positive patient impressions.” I did some research, and as I expected, there isn’t much written on the impact of increased PPE and patient relations in dentistry. However, I discovered an interesting 2013 Chinese study entitled, The effect of face masks on empathy and relational continuity: A randomized controlled trial in primary care.1 Here’s the abstract:

“This study demonstrates that when doctors wear a face mask during consultations, it has a significant negative impact on the patient’s perceived empathy and diminishes the positive effects of relational continuity.” 

The conclusion goes on to say, “Consideration should be taken in planning appropriate use of face masks in infectious disease policy for primary care and other health-care professionals at a national, local, or practice level.” 

I don’t believe that the dental industry has time to wait for specific research on COVID-19–mandated PPE recommendations and their effects on patient relations. Instead, we can make some common-sense assumptions based on existing research, such as a recent study related to hypertension and cardiovascular risk caused by “white coat syndrome.”2 Armed with this information, we can work to implement new “unmasking” marketing and communication tactics in day-to-day practice.

The photo worn by my mom’s physical therapist was one good way to connect with patients, but there are several more worth considering: 

• Team photo and video shoot. Now is as good a time as any to take new photos of each team member with and without PPE. As part of this project, your dental team can record video introductions that make their website bios come to life.

These PPE/no PPE photos and introduction videos can be shot by your team on their smartphones as long as the resolution, lighting, and sound are good quality and the background is relatively uncluttered. I’d also suggest an office light ring that everyone can use for optimal photo and video lighting.

These photos and videos will become the cornerstone for a variety of marketing communications that lend a personal touch, making them especially relevant during this new normal of “astronauts in the operatory” patient care.

• Photo business cards. Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of this type of business card, always popular with real estate agents. But today, any opportunity to build some face recognition and personal branding may be just what the doctor ordered. If you’re a specialist who routinely provides business cards or appointment cards to referring dentists, update them with a friendly selfie.

In the past, many patients were anxious about being told to see a new dentist about a serious oral health issue. Today, they are more anxious than ever. “Will I even know who is treating me?” A friendly face on your card can help to alleviate patient anxiety and perhaps make them more likely to schedule an appointment.

• Appointment and recall reminders. If you already employ these types of alerts, whether they be postcards or e-mails, why not include a photo of the dentist or hygienist with whom the patient has the appointment?

This is especially important for patients coming to your practice for the first time. Perhaps you’ll experience less missed or cancelled appointments if the recipient of the appointment reminder feels like they have a personal connection with their clinician. You’ll never know unless you try and track it.

• Social media photos and videos. Social media has become a “hungry beast” for photos and videos. Posts that contain photos and especially videos result in increased engagement. Get in the habit of posting a series of “Meet our team,” “Our team in action,” and “How we keep you safe” photos and videos.

• Teledentistry. If you want your new, “unmasked” patient communications to safely evolve from one-way interactions to two-way dialogue, you can easily achieve this via a teledentistry platform such as MouthWatch TeleDent.

New patient consultations, treatment planning, case presentation, specialist consultations, and home care coaching can all be conducted virtually and safely via smartphone-friendly live (synchronous) or recorded (asynchronous) video. The result is enhanced safety for patients and teams alike, improved patient trust, more efficient administrative and clinical workflows, and reduced PPE costs.

For the foreseeable future, dental procedures in the operatory will bear a striking resemblance to deep-sea diving. However, the are many opportunities for photo- and video-enhanced patient communications and virtual patient encounters that will serve to underscore clinicians’ empathy, reduce patients’ anxiety, and preserve patients’ trust. What steps are you currently taking in your practice to unmask dentistry?


  1. Wong CK, Yip BH, Mercer S, et al. Effect of facemasks on empathy and relational continuity: a randomized controlled trial in primary care. BMC Fam Pract. 2013;14:200. Published 2013 Dec 24. doi:10.1186/1471-2296-14-200
  2. Pioli MR, Ritter AM, de Faria AP, Modolo R. White coat syndrome and its variations: differences and clinical impact. Integr Blood Press Control. 2018;11:73-79. Published 2018 Nov 8. doi:10.2147/IBPC.S152761

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles at this link and subscribe here.

Michael Ventriello is the owner of Ventriello Communications LLC and specializes in developing strategic marketing and public relations programs needed to launch game-changing dental companies and products. Ventriello is a frequent contributor to dental industry trade journals. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on FacebookLinkedInTwitter, and Instagram.