Setting Realistic Expectations: Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

By: Dr. Savanah Craig

Managing the expectations of others is a challenge in any aspect of life but is particularly challenging in dentistry.

In the age of social media and Photoshop, it is easy to lose sight of what is real and what is edited. Two-day shipping and door-to-door delivery has intensified our need for instant gratification.

These societal changes, as well as, limited dental competency can create a real challenge for dentists when creating treatment plans for patients. 

Creating Realistic Treatment Plans for Patients

It is important to remember that your patient does not have the expert knowledge that you, the clinician carry.

They do not understand all that goes into our treatment plans and they do not understand the limitations of our materials and patient biology that factor into our decisions.

One of the biggest challenges is learning how to take all the information swirling around inside your brain and distill it into clear and concise information for the patient.

We must meet the patients where they are but also help them to understand what is realistic to expect from us. 

Clearly Communicate the Facts of the Treatment Plan

It is hard to be the one to disappoint another person. Most dentists I know want to be liked and truly want to make our patients happy.

However, this can get us into trouble when we allow patients’ hopes of the treatment plan to cloud what is realistic to expect.

We cannot fix years’ worth of dental neglect in one afternoon, that’s just not realistic. We cannot make a traditional complete denture fit like the patient’s natural teeth if they are not willing to invest in implants.

These are scenarios where we have to have difficult conversations with our patients and enlighten them about what is possible in the time, financial, and material constraints we are working with.

Patients who have severe bone loss due to periodontal disease are not necessarily candidates for implants. Those who have no posterior teeth are at risk for fracturing anterior teeth and crowns if it is not addressed.

It is our job to explain to patients the facts of their condition in a clear and kind way, but we cannot allow them to push us into promising treatment we cannot deliver. 

Set Expectations Low (Attempt to Exceed Them)

I have found it is better to set expectations low and then exceed them if possible.

The most frustrating cases for me and my patients have been when I have promised something I couldn’t deliver or have not addressed a patient’s unrealistic expectations.

It is normal for patients to have hard feelings when they find out what they wanted is not possible. I tend to recommend these patients seek a second opinion.

It’s okay if I am not the right dentist for you, but it is not okay for be to put us both in a position for a bad outcome. As the expert in this conversation, it is my job to inform the patient and explain my findings to them.

However, Patient autonomy allows them to choose to find someone else to render their care if they choose. 

In Conclusion

Learning to set realistic expectations with patients can be a challenge but it is much easier than the alternative! 

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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.