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What are patients’ perceptions about going to the dentist in the wake of COVID-19?

May 21, 2020
As reopening begins post–COVID-19, do you really know how your patients feel about visiting the dentist? Dr. Stacey Gividen decided it was time to hear their voices. With her own survey of 250 patients, here are the unfiltered findings.

Generally speaking, dental visits have never been at the top of anyone’s to do list. And with the introduction of COVID-19 and its multifaceted impact on our profession, one could easily surmise that the excuse to stop seeing the dentist altogether is finally here. Hmm ... really? Or is that the dental rhetoric talking when the reality is something quite different?

As the engines are starting up again, much is being considered across the board with regard to risk assessment, management, protocol, and systems that we have and are putting in place to make our practices safe places—for staff and patients alike. If anything, we have implemented a modification to our status quo to meet new guidelines. So when patients enter through our reopened doors, what actually crosses their minds regarding the experience and perception of being safe, regardless of the procedures they’re there for? Are they thinking about aerosols, patient–provider proximity, and our donning of an entourage of PPEs? After all, our work area (the mouth) puts us right in the line of fire, so to speak, and what we do has an inherent risk. I was curious about these answers as there has been very little written on patient perception, what they care about, and furthermore, what they expect.

In an effort to gain a better awareness and understanding of our patients, I reached out to numerous (approximately 250) people: existing patients, friends, young, old, male and female, acquaintances on social media (near and far, rural and urban areas), various political backgrounds and viewpoints. My inquiry pool knew no bounds. Mind you, this was by no means an official and scientific study. What it was, was my “boots on the ground” attempt at getting raw, unfiltered, and genuine answers to the questions that haven’t been asked. Why? Because having a general feel for the psyche of the dental patient in the post–COVID-19 world is a vital tool in our patient management armamentarium.

Not surprisingly, the answers and viewpoints were all over the board. Here is the summary of the results:

  • I’m not in a high-risk category, so I’m not worried at all.
  • I’m not worried about you being in my mouth; it’s the other mouths I’m worried about that you’ve worked on—are THOSE patients sick?
  • Are the staff infected?
  • Are the instruments and rooms clean?
  • I have no worries at all.
  • It will be a long time before I feel safe going to the dentist again.

Here are some other tidbits I gathered (with regard to going to the dentist):

  • Younger generations seemed to be accepting of the status quo, eager to ask questions about safety, but they did not seem to be worried about being seen by a dentist.
  • Older generations frequently mentioned the importance of addressing their oral health needs and continuing to take care of themselves. As one individual put it, “COVID is just another one of life’s curveballs.”
  • Baby boomers, depending on geographic areas, were on the extremes with their viewpoints. They were either super-cautious or quite carefree in their approach to seeing the dentist. To quote one individual: “I’ve been through worse and my time will come when it comes, COVID or not. Let’s just pull this tooth and be done with it!” And from another: “I just don’t feel safe coming in yet; can I schedule a few months out?”

What does all this mean? We must be cognizant of perception and how it’s married to reality. There is no magic formula, and as such, our practice, staff, and subsequent care need to be prepared for the best- and worst-case scenarios. However, I will argue that this concept should be nothing new, as even now we manage the extremes and everything else in-between concerning infection control, patient management of anxiety, pain, and the entire gamut of emotions involved with dental treatment.

In essence, autonomy, trust, and how we cultivate our patient–provider relationships are key to maintaining those vital patient care platforms across the profession. How? If patients don’t trust us, they will exercise their autonomy not to receive care. Plain and simple.

I’ll drive home my point with a response from an ortho patient who works on the front lines in New Jersey. He stated, “Safety is a matter of trust. Just like law enforcement trusts the public to do the right thing, so must a patient have a trusting relationship with their health-care provider. I trust my orthodontist, so I feel safe [seeing him]. Patients, however, must not be afraid to voice concerns should they have them.”

Our patients’ feedback, trust, and voices are the vehicles by which we continue to improve what we do. If anything, COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to fine-tune our systems and take them to higher levels. Furthermore, it’s given awareness of our profession and the vital importance of oral and systemic health.

Cheers, my friends!


Stacey L. Gividen, DDS
Editorial Director, Breakthrough Clinical

Last month: “COVID-19 dental information overload: Detach, prioritize, execute” 

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Breakthrough Clinical, a clinical specialties newsletter from Dental Economics and DentistryIQ. Read more articles at this link.

Stacey L. Gividen, DDS, a graduate of Marquette University School of Dentistry, is in private practice in Hamilton, Montana. She is a guest lecturer at the University of Montana in the Anatomy and Physiology Department. Dr. Gividen is the editorial director of Endeavor Business Media’s clinical dental specialties e-newsletter, Breakthrough Clinical,and a contributing author for DentistryIQPerio-Implant Advisory, and Dental Economics. She also serves on the Dental Economics editorial advisory board. You may contact her at [email protected].
About the Author

Stacey L. Gividen, DDS

Stacey L. Gividen, DDS, a graduate of Marquette University School of Dentistry, is in private practice in Montana. She is a guest lecturer at the University of Montana in the Anatomy and Physiology Department. Dr. Gividen has contributed to DentistryIQPerio-Implant Advisory, and Dental Economics. You may contact her at [email protected].