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How to attract patients with dental fear and anxiety to your practice

July 17, 2017
Every dental practice claims to have caring staff or to offer pain-free dentistry. But making these claims isn't enough to draw patients with dental fear or anxiety to your practice. 
Colin Receveur, CEO, SmartBox

Every dental practice claims to have caring staff or to offer pain-free dentistry. But making these claims isn't enough to draw patients with dental fear or anxiety to your practice.

By some estimates, more than 130 million people in the United States have some level of dental fear or anxiety. Dentists know all too well how fear of the dentist affects dental care. People avoid dental care for years or, in some cases, decades—until pain, gum disease, or tooth loss forces them to make an appointment.

In recent years, many dental practices have improved at acknowledging dental fear as an issue that requires intervention. Claims of “pain-free” dentistry or the “comfortable dentist” are everywhere in dental marketing. And every dental practice claims to have caring, concerned, helpful staff. Overall, those claims haven’t done much to alleviate the problem, and there’s a good reason for that. Patients don’t believe you.

Let’s break this down for those who are having trouble believing that statement. Fearful or anxious patients are predisposed to distrust dental personnel. Those patients are afraid of being hurt, embarrassed, or even disfigured during the procedure, as irrational as that may sound. Some dental anxiety or fear is learned. Some people, according to recent research, are genetically predisposed to fear of dentistry. (1)

The more anxiety or fear a patient has, the less trustworthy any dental practice’s claims become. No matter what you put in your marketing, the anxious or fearful patient won’t “fall for it" but will instead process information in a “fear-confirming” way.

Don’t tell, show

If fearful patients won’t believe you or your staff, who will they believe? More than likely, they’ll believe people who don’twork for your practice. Positive reviews on independent sites like Yelp and Healthgrades provide social proof for your prospects. Reviews that focus on how painless treatment was or how comfortable people felt in your practice can go a long way toward converting the fearful or anxious prospect.

As odd as it may sound, people with dental fear still want to get dental treatment (on some level). They know they’re risking a cavity, tender gums, a loose tooth, or worse. You can use that to your advantage by providing the social proof that dentistry at your practice is nothing to be feared.

There's one caveat: as I mentioned above, fearful and anxious prospects process information in a fear-confirming way. One negative review will have a hugely disproportionate impact. Your online reviews have to be overwhelminglypositive to counteract just one negative review.

Patient testimonials on your website can have some impact, but they suffer from contamination, so to speak. Those patients are in your practice, and just thinking about that can elicit fear reactions. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have testimonials on your website; you have many nonanxious prospects who can be positively influenced to choose you to solve their dental problems.

But wherever possible, make sure your patient testimonial videos are shot against a neutral background that doesn’t obviously suggest a dental practice.

Comfort counts

When your social proof influences fearful prospects to consider choosing your practice, the next consideration is what your practice can offer them besides excellent dentistry. Most comfort options for patients cost relatively little and can pay large dividends.

The first, and arguably the most important for the anxious population, is dental sedation. Preventing pain is first and foremost on that list, but the concerns of fearful dental patients go beyond that. Fear and anxiety are very uncomfortable to experience. Actually being in a dental chair increases patients’ dread tremendously, and the anticipation of any procedure can ratchet up anxiety to extreme levels. That’s why an option for oral dental sedation can be very reassuring for many patients. Be sure to emphasize the benefit to the patient in your marketing—that patients will remain relaxed and comfortable throughout the procedure. If you have one or more good reviews that mention this option, include those on your website in the section on sedation options.

For those practices willing to invest in the “ultimate” solution, having an option for IV sedation can be the deciding factor for fearful patients.

On a less clinical level, creature comforts such as warm blankets, comfortable pillows, and music or television to provide a distraction are also useful. If you have those or other comfort options available, be sure to emphasize them in your marketing, and make sure that your phone answerers stress those options when they deal with fearful patients.

Knowledge is relief

One way to think of anxiety is “You don’t know what’s going to happen, and not knowing bothers you.” More and more dentists are taking a “let’s demystify this” approach to dental procedures. Understanding exactly what will happen while they’re in the chair is comforting for many people; for others, it’s an invitation to panic. A flexible approach is needed here. The vast majority of patients will tell you, if asked, whether they want to know the various steps involved in their care.

For fearful patients, knowing that they control the pace of events is a great help. When people feel out of control, anxiety and fear can feed on themselves in an escalating cycle. You’ve probably experienced that with some patients. If your prospects are reassured that they can ask for short breaks, that puts control back into their hands and decreases their stress. Again, emphasize in your marketing that you can provide longer appointments and/or that the pace of events during any procedure is up to the patient.

Finally, fear of abandonment after a procedure can be a major deterrent to patients booking an appointment. Stress that you routinely make after-hour follow-up calls and that emergency services are available if needed.

Putting it together

The odds are good that you’re already doing many, if not all, of these things in your practice. But your anxious dental prospects aren’t in your practice. If you want to get them to walk through your doors, your marketing has to demonstrate that you provide solutions to their fears.

Incorporate these suggestions into your practice and your marketing, and you can get more than your share of this patient population in your area.


1. Carter AE, Carter G, Boschen M, AlShwaimi E, George R. Pathways of fear and anxiety in dentistry: A review. World J Clin Cases. 2014;2(11):642-653.

Colin Receveur, a nationally recognized dental marketing expert and speaker, is the author of several bestselling books on internet marketing. His company, SmartBox Web Marketing, helps more than 550 dentists on three continents get more patients, more profits, and more freedom. Reach him at [email protected].
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About the Author

Colin Receveur | CEO, SmartBox

Colin Receveur, a dental marketing expert and speaker, is the author of several books on internet marketing, includingThe Four Horsemen of Dentistry: Survival Strategies for the Private Dental Practice Under Siege. His company, SmartBox, helps more than 550 dentists on three continents get more patients, more profits, and more freedom. Reach him at [email protected].

Updated October 27, 2017