How to help your patients overcome dental phobia
There are studies available that will help dentists understand their patients' phobias better. In the meantime, here are some helpful tips for understanding those who fear you
Every dentist experiences this on an almost daily basis – the terrified patient who cannot relax, no matter how well you explain that you’re not in the torture business. It’s a problem that knows no borders. Researchers in Jaipur, India, studied the fear and annoyance that the sound of dental drills causes in patients. A study of Brazilian women tied their anxiety level to socioeconomic factors. Dentists in Turkey, Singapore, and the U.K. have all tried to determine what clothing will be most comforting to their pediatric patients.
So how can we best soothe nervous patients? Let’s take a closer look at the problem and some possible solutions.
Understanding dental phobias
At the most basic level, letting a stranger put his or her fingers in one’s mouth does not come naturally. It goes against our survival mechanisms to allow access to sensitive gums and vulnerable airways. But people also suffer from more specific types of dentist-related fears, called dentophobia or odontophobia. Some patients are afraid of needles, while the drill freaks out others. They might also fear gagging and choking, or pain.
If patients confide in you about their anxiety – which will probably be all too apparent to you anyway – take a moment to try to understand what they’re afraid of. This will help you figure out the best way to help your patients cope. Many will feel more relaxed simply because you care enough to ask. This will make you seem more human, and less like somebody who graduated from dental school just to get some sadistic jollies.
What to wear can be tricky, especially if you see patients of all ages. Studies of what attire puts children at ease have had mixed and surprising results. In a study in Singapore published in a 2014 issue of the European Archives of Pediatric Dentistry, both children and parents preferred that dentist wear personal protective equipment. The Singaporean children and those in a U.K. study favored informally dressed dentists, while children in a Turkish study chose formal.
Gender and ethnicity also play a part in patient comfort. The children in the Singapore study preferred dentists of their own gender and ethnicity. Parents chose young female dentists of the same ethnicity. The U.K. study also found that children were more comfortable with a dentist of their own gender.
While you can’t do much about your ethnicity and gender, you can tailor your clothing to your clientele. These studies also suggest that having both male and female dentists on staff could be good for business.
Encourage parents to be good dental role models
With all the things going against us in our efforts to calm patients – pain, noisy drills, needles – the last thing we need is for parents to pass their dental fears on to their children. But this fear was probably passed down to them from their parents, and down the line, back to when their forefathers had one relative designated as the “family tooth puller.” Now that was painful!
So how do we raise fearless – or at least less fearful – little patients? Inform new parents about the importance of starting dental care early. Encourage them to try hard not to share their dental fears with their children. A Spanish study published in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistry found that fathers’ fears of dentistry had an especially strong impact on children.
Promote self care
Practice helping your patients help themselves. Reassure them that all they need to do is give you a signal if they need more Novocain. Encourage your patients to close their eyes, put on headphones, and listen to whatever music calms them. Tell them to go ahead and zone out; you’ll squeeze their hand if you need to get their attention.
If new patients call to schedule appointments but seem to have severe dental phobia, have your staff invite them in for a scaled back getting-to-know-you appointment. Develop rapport, and they may become regular patients. Either way, by helping patients overcome their fears, you’ll have done your part for the greater good of humanity – or at least for humanity’s dental health.
Dr. Leslie Townsend has worked for Jefferson Dental Clinics for the past 10 years in Dallas. Dr. Townsend is considered a mentor of her dental practice, and she takes ownership of the well-being of patients through moral business practices and high-quality patient care.