Dental Patient Communication: Learning to meet your patients where they are

By: Savanah Craig

One of the biggest challenges I face while beginning my career in dentistry is patient communication. I have spent the last 4 years learning a whole new language of technical jargon to be able to communicate with my colleagues and read research articles. However, much of my day is spent in communication with patients who need me to explain things in a way they understand.

At times it feels like I am playing a role, like an actor, during different patient interactions. I can’t talk to a 6-year-old patient the same way I can to a 60-year-old patient. The type of explanation required to convince a retired dental hygienist that she needs a crown is much different than the conversation I would have with a high school student about getting a filling on a tooth.

Communicating with Dental Patients

Certain patients prefer more detailed explanations of how the procedure will be performed and what they should expect to hear, see, and experience while in the chair. Other patients would prefer to know less about the details of the procedure. In one day, I can encounter many different people who require me to be a different kind of communicator during each interaction. Learning how to communicate with each patient uniquely and individually allows me to form relationships with them and earn their trust.

Preparation Equals Confidence

As a dental student, patient communication comes with unique challenges. Many of my older patients see me as young and inexperienced, and it takes extra effort to earn their trust. To overcome this barrier, I show up to my appointments as prepared as possible so that I can feel confident throughout the procedure.

There are still many times when something unexpected happens that requires me to rely on my faculty, but I ensure that patient that having two dentists to evaluate is always better than one. I can explain to the patient that I am seeking guidance while still reminding them that I am a well-trained professional who is capable of treating them.

Excusing yourself from the cubicle to speak with your faculty member and ask for clarification is another helpful way to maintain the confidence of your patient while still learning in the dental school environment. At the end of the day, I have gained more trust from my patients through honesty than I have with false confidence.

Don’t Assume What Your Patient Knows

Throughout my two years in clinic, I have learned the importance of not making assumptions. Dental school is a truly unique experience because everyone you interact with, outside of your patients, has the same base knowledge of dentistry and oral health. When I am eating lunch with my classmates, I don’t have to explain the importance of brushing and flossing because everyone around me knows that.

Some patients, however, were never taught the importance of brushing and flossing or do not know how to do it properly. For these individuals, telling them to brush more is not going to improve the condition of their teeth. I have tried to stop assuming patients know and understand the basics of dentistry or oral health. I get the patient a toothbrush and ask them to show me how they brush their teeth and make corrections to help them improve.

Let Patients Know What To Expect

Setting realistic expectations is also an essential lesson in patient communication. This skill has become incredibly important during removable denture procedures. Not everyone understands the limitations and complications associated with complete dentures.

They think that dentures are easier to take care of than teeth and that seems like a good enough reason to have all their teeth extracted. However, dentures are not a replacement for teeth and even the most well-fitting pair of dentures can be an adjustment for the patient to get used to. Through trial and error, I have found that it is crucial to discuss the limitations of a procedure with patients in detail.

Make sure they understand that even in the best-case scenario things may not feel the same as before the procedure. Even restorations can impact a patient’s bite and require some occlusal adjustment. Your patients do not have the breadth of experience you do. These may be the best and most retentive dentures you have ever seen, but all your patient knows is that these don’t the same as having their own teeth in their mouth. Being aware of how my training and knowledge can make me biased toward a patient’s experience has helped me to set more realistic expectations.

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Photo by Cedric Fauntleroy

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig

Savanah Craig obtained her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from The Ohio State University before pursuing a one-year General Practice Residency in Columbia, SC. Dr. Craig is passionate about patient education and utilizes her advanced training to provide excellent care for her patients as a general dentist practicing in Columbus, OH. In her free time, Dr. Craig enjoys reading, exploring new restaurants, and traveling with her husband, Adam.