Although regular dental check-ups are part of life’s routine for most people, a certain segment of the population tries to avoid the dentist like the plague. According to WebMD, between 9 percent and 20 percent of Americans do not go to the dentist due to anxiety and fear. These individuals may be unable to sleep before a dentist appointment, have escalating fear as an appointment approaches, or be unable to breathe when a dental exam begins.
It can be easy to brush off this fear if you are not the one experiencing it; however, for dental offices, this can be a real challenge. Thankfully, there are many small ways that you can help your more anxious patients relax and feel less frightened during a dental exam including providing a comfortable waiting area, building rapport with dental promotional items, and giving them some control of the situation.
Here are some simple ways to make your patients feel more at ease when they visit your dental practice.
1. Create a Comfortable, Cozy Environment
Let’s face it. We are all beings who heavily rely on our senses. What we see, hear, smell and feel can make a significant difference in our overall comfort level in any particular place. Use this fact to help create a comfortable office environment.
Start by creating a warm and inviting atmosphere in your dental office. If you are opening a new office or redecorating, select warm, calm colors. According to Martha Stewart, a creamy white, mustard yellow or earthy green can be relaxing color choices. Choose decor, furniture, and artwork that exudes peaceful and relaxing images.
Be sure that the temperature of your office is comfortable, neither too warm or too cool. Most people find that an indoor temperature between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity between 30 percent and 70 percent is most comfortable. Depending on your locale, you may consider a humidifier or a dehumidifier at certain times of the year.
According to the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, aromatherapy can help reduce anxiety, stress, fear, and panic in dental offices by inducing relaxation. Essential oils can be used in a diffuser or in potpourri. Oils that are especially calming including tangerine, orange, blue tansy, ylang-ylang, and patchouli.
Some dental offices will provide free WiFi so that patients can connect while they are waiting and perhaps take their minds off their anxiety. Many play relaxing music or even offer television or movie selections during dental procedures. If a patient can select music or a program that would be helpful to them, all the better.
Small items such as neck support pillows or dental promotional items during the actual procedure can also improve the patient’s experience.
2. Train Your Team to Be Attuned
When you think about learning a job, you typically think about duties. For dental assistants and office staff, this may include things like how to manage paper or electronic files, how to schedule or change appointments, when to distribute dental promotional items and where instruments and supplies are kept.
In addition, general standards of reasonable customer service are also taught. This might include how to answer the phone or welcome a patient to the practice or how to deal with an unhappy customer, miscommunication or error. You may learn what discounts, additional services or dental promotional products can be offered to appease a discontented patient.
However, you may overlook the importance of training your staff in how to deal with anxious or fearful patients appropriately. These skills may come naturally to some but be quite foreign to others. Here are some tips to emphasize with your dental assistants and office staff:
- View patients as human beings. In some cases, it can help to encourage your staff to think of each person as someone they know. Have them consider how they would treat a relative, friend or neighbor if they came in as a patient.
- Be attentive. Teach your staff to watch body language and facial expression in addition to listening carefully to each patient. In many cases, you can tell if people are nervous or anxious by the way they carry themselves.
- Trust your instincts. If your staff suspects that someone is fearful, they should learn to trust those feelings. This can be an excellent key to alert the dentist, offer comforting items, or provide dental promotional products to the patient. Even if instincts are wrong, the caring response of your team can be a positive experience for the patient nonetheless.
- Listen to past issues. In many cases, dental anxiety occurs when a patient has a negative previous experience. Perhaps a dental experience resulted in a great deal of pain or the patient felt misunderstood or not cared about with a previous health provider. Listen to past experiences with empathy and understand; this alone can often help reassure your patient.
3. Open Ongoing Lines of Communication
Like many other things in life, communication is key. If you can develop a positive and open line of communication with your patient from the beginning, you will be a trusted professional who listens and helps for years to come. Invest the time in creating and nurturing a relationship with each patient. Although all patients will appreciate the care, those who are particularly anxious may learn to relax more readily. Here are some ideas to do just that:
- Schedule a pre-treatment appointment. Use this time to clearly explain the procedure as well as the benefits to the patient’s dental health. This talk-time will help acclimate an anxious patient to you and your office.
- Listen carefully. Encourage your patient to ask questions and express concerns. Sometimes simply sharing fears can help alleviate them. Do your best to explain details and provide explanations and clarity to help your patient feel at ease.
- Offer solutions. If your office has different options that can help allay fears, offer those possible solutions. Perhaps laughing gas can be offered for particular procedures, or you may be able to provide movie or music options to help take an anxious patient’s mind off of the procedures for a time being.
4. Reconsider Your Office Lighting
Because fluorescent light bulbs do not use heat to produce light, they are very energy efficient. As a result, many government entities require fluorescent lighting in commercial spaces, and many dental offices use this lighting throughout their office. Unfortunately, fluorescent lighting produces a green light that produces a dead appearance of human skin in addition to a warehouse-like atmosphere. Although subtle, such lighting can contribute to fear and anxiety for sensitive patients. Alternative light options, particularly in the areas where patients will be spending the most time, may be worth the investment. Here are some options:
- Warm fluorescent bulbs have recently hit the market. The best of these are close to natural sunlight; however, they can be significantly more expensive than standard fluorescent light bulbs.
- Incandescent lights are typically found in homes, and as a result, can be used in the waiting room to communicate a warm, comfortable feeling for patients. This lighting can remind them of home and the comfort associated with it.
- Halogen lighting is also a good warm lighting choice for reception areas.
- Balanced lighting can be achieved in treatment areas by looking at a variety of factors including natural sunlight, tinted windows, artificial lighting sources, and the colors and reflectivity of surrounding walls, floors and furniture.
5. Give Patients Some Control
According to Healthy Place, a consumer mental health site, a lack of control contributes to most instances of anxiety and fear. In many cases, anxious individuals play the “what-if” game and conjugate many possible scary situations that could happen and, as a result, increase their own anxiety.
When it comes to dental anxiety and fear, a lack of control also plays into the equation. Patients who delay going to the dentist can wonder what the dentist will find, if they will be trapped in the dental chair, or if the procedures will be painful or frightening.
Your job is to turn as much control back over to your anxious patients as possible. Here are some ways to offer control and hopefully ease anxiety:
- Provide distraction choices. Whether it be in the waiting area or during a procedure itself, if you can provide free WiFi or offer music or movie selections, you can give your patients control over part of their environment. Even allowing them to choose between different dental promotional products can give them a feeling of control.
- Offer treatment options. If there are different options for a particular treatment, present all of them with pros and cons of each. For instance, you may be able to offer different types of anesthesia or divide the procedure into multiple shorter appointments over time.
- Decide on a stop signal. When patients are lying back in dental chairs with instruments in their mouths, it’s difficult to communicate pain, discomfort or fear. Determine a signal for your patients to use if they need you to stop in the middle of a procedure. It may be as simple as raising a hand to indicate they need a break or have a question.
6. Upgrade X-Ray Procedures
Although dental x-rays are an expected part of preventative care, they can contribute to some patients’ anxiety levels. The good news is that technology has made dental x-rays easier, safer and more efficient than ever. If it’s time to invest in your dental practice, consider swapping conventional dental x-ray equipment for digital x-ray options. Here are some benefits of upgrading:
- Reduce radiation exposure. Although dental x-rays, in general, have a low level of radiation, it never hurts to reduce the levels of exposure to both your patients and staff even further if possible. Digital equipment can maintain a quality image with between 60 percent and 80 percent less exposure.
- Speed up results. It only takes a few seconds after taking a digital x-ray to obtain high-quality images, which means patients can get results more quickly and efficiently.
- Improve clarity. Digital technology allows dentists to see clearer, larger images, which means more details can be spotted earlier. This can lead to less invasive procedures and a reduction in dental problems in the long run.
- Be gentler on the environment. By switching to digital images, you can eliminate the chemicals and silver halide waste that is typically associated with traditional x-ray film and developing procedures.
Selecting the right kind of x-ray as well as the appropriate frequency is also important. Here are typical dental x-ray options and what they are used to best view and diagnose:
- Periapical x-rays provide a view of the whole tooth from crown to the bone. This is a very complete x-ray to help you pinpoint exactly what may be the problem.
- Bite-wing x-rays are perhaps the most common and show how teeth touch one another. By providing a visual of both upper and lower teeth and their relationship, a dentist can determine if decay is occurring.
- Panoramic x-rays take a picture of a patient’s entire jaw, nasal, joints and sinus area as well as all the teeth. These x-rays are not needed very frequently and are often used when patients require orthodontic treatment or dental implants.
- Occlusal x-rays provide a view of the mouth floor as well as the patient’s bite. These are typically used to monitor children’s transition from baby to adult teeth.
7. Offer Relaxation Exercises
Relaxation exercises and techniques can be an excellent adjunct to other means of calming down patients who may be anxious about a dental visit. Although they can be helpful, they are most effective when patients practice them as part of their daily routine and not just during a dental procedure. As a result, you may want to offer a course or referral for relaxation training for your longer-term anxious patients as part of their overall wellness program.
If you have an opportunity to conduct a pre-treatment appointment, this is also a good time to suggest relaxation exercises. You can offer a one-page summary of exercises, a referral to a website, or a suggestion to attend a community class on relaxation. Here are some easy exercises that your patients can practice:
- Square breathing. This technique involves taking a slow breath for a count of three seconds, a pause for three seconds, a slow exhale for three seconds and another three-second pause. By intentionally slowing down your breathing, you reduce the chances of escalating into a panic attack.
- Belly breathing. This technique is similar to the one above. Begin by forcing all the air out of your lungs and pausing. When you inhale, push your belly out and hold your breath until it becomes slightly uncomfortable. Exhale by sucking your belly in. Experts suggest practice this technique one minute every waking hour.
- Muscle relaxation. By focusing on one set of muscles at a time, you can tense and release tension throughout your body. Lie down and start at your feet. Tense the muscles in your feet for a few seconds and then focus on releasing and relaxing that area. Slowly move up your body.
8. Understand and Adjust Your Body Language
Body language is one of those things that can make a big difference when interacting with patients. It’s also something that you typically overlook in your own behavior. The first step to improving your body language comes with awareness. Understanding positive body language and what you can do to improve your own can make a big difference for anxious patients:
- Be confident. If your patients are anxious, you need to exude confidence in your interactions with them. Stand up straight and make all your gestures deliberate. If you and your staff appear confident, your patients will have more confidence that you know what you are doing and are competent in dental procedures.
- Smile naturally. Most people can detect fake smiles and will feel uncomfortable if you are not being genuine. Work on positive, real relationships with your patients and your body language should follow more naturally.
- Maintain eye contact. Looking anxious patients directly in the eyes can help them feel more connected and heard by you. Be sure to listen attentively and address their concerns with not only your voice but also with your face and body language.
- Watch unnecessary reactions. Try to control worried looks or furrowed brows during a dental exam or procedure. Patients can detect problems by watching your facial expressions, and it may increase their anxiety.
9. Build Long-Term Rapport
There’s nothing like establishing a trusted doctor-patient relationship to maintain long-term customers and reduce overall patient anxiety. Treat your patients like family and friends. If you genuinely care about your patients, they will sense that and return for future treatments. Eventually, they may lessen or overcome their dental anxiety altogether. Here are some ideas to build ongoing rapport:
- Remember names. Train your staff to remember the names of your patients. Address them by name when they come in for their appointment, and use their name throughout their appointment.
- Recall life details. Although you don’t want to pry into the personal lives of your patients, many people will enjoy sharing important things about their lives. You could incorporate notes in your patient files or database and ask about children, a recent vacation or a new job. Being able to remember these details help you connect with patients and communicate that they are important people.
- Offer dental promotional products. Everyone loves freebies, and there are many items that are available for dental offices to obtain inexpensively and give away. Many useful dental promotional products can be tailored to not only carry your practice logo and contact information but can help encourage good dental hygiene practice as well. Here are some ideas:
- Toothbrushes imprinted with your dental practice will encourage daily dental care after your patients leave their appointment.
- Dental floss keychains can come in handy, especially for patients who frequently eat on the run.
- Dental travel kits can make great giveaways for patients who may travel often on business or pleasure.
- Children’s activity books can help distract anxious younger patients and provide some relief for accompanying caregivers.
- For something out of the ordinary, consider passing out dental stress reliever toys.
10. Solicit Feedback and Incorporate Improvements
It’s always important to continuously improve, and one great way of finding more ideas on how to do that is to ask your patients. With today’s technology, it’s easy to set up anonymous, verified surveys that can be sent after each patient visit. You can request that patients rate various aspects of your service. Be sure to leave a spot for comments and suggestions for improvement.
In addition, you can also ask for a personal evaluation so that you can improve treatment for each particular patient. For example, you can create a set of statements and ask patients to rate their experience on a scale from one to five with one being not true and five being completely true. Statements could include:
- I was relaxed during the dental treatment
- I was nervous during the dental treatment
- I was frightened during the dental treatment
Depending on responses, you can get an idea of how much intervention or reassurance is needed for this particular patient on an ongoing basis.
Be sure you review the feedback and make changes in your office accordingly. It may be helpful to even communicate changes that have resulted from patient feedback so that they know their voices are being heard.
Dental anxiety and fear are real issues for nearly one-fifth of all people. By addressing these concerns for your patients, you will be building a positive, supportive and well-loved dental practice in your community. Simple things like ensuring that your office is comfortable, turning over some aspects of control to your patients, offering quality dental promotional products, and providing staff with training on how to understand and care for these patients are easy steps to take to help this group of patients feel more comfortable and get the dental care they need to stay healthy.