As dental practitioners, root canals, dental surgery, and other procedures are so commonplace we may forget that for most patients, they are a first-time experience.
But the success of any procedure depends at least in part on the patient—how well prepared they are and how well they follow after-care instructions.
- Do you explain even a simple procedure like filling a cavity? What’s to explain, right? But it’s best not to surprise a patient with tiny needle pricks into their gums or the sound and sensation of a drill removing tooth decay. Even if your patient is an adult with a mouth full of fillings, it may have been awhile and they may not remember the last time they had a filling.
- For more invasive procedures like root canals or wisdom tooth extraction, do you explain, step-by-step, how you’ll numb the area, numbing/sedation options, tools you’ll use, how long it’ll take, how the patient can expect to feel afterward, and after-care instructions? Some people expect root canals to be very painful, due to anesthetic failure in the past from untreated infection, for example. A full review can go a long way toward allaying any fear a patient may have.
- If you have a patient in need of implants, do you ask if they’re a smoker? If they are, do you explain how smoking is the number one cause of implant failure? Do you help them with smoking cessation resources and suggest planning for implants after they’ve quit smoking?
- If you’re pulling a tooth, do you explain the procedure and the tools you’ll use? Do you let the patient know what to expect in terms of the sound of their tooth being pulled, the blood they may taste, and how to safeguard the tender gap in the days afterward?
- Do you let patients know all of their options for anesthetic, pain-killers, anti-anxiety medication, and sedation? Do you explain how each works?
To some, this type of detailed information may seem counterintuitive to trying not to scare patients away. But a well-informed patient is a more relaxed patient.
Don’t leave it to Dr. Google
We’re all well aware of “Dr. Google,” and the confusion and misinformation patients can encounter while trying to research their own symptoms. Yet, we may also be too reliant on the internet to do the job of educating our own patients.
You can’t count on patients to research the procedures you’re recommending and come away well-prepared. There’s simply too much information online and yet too little in the way of resources that can give patients the accurate information they actually need.
And leaving the education to “Dr. Google” is a sure-fire way to guarantee your patients will see every nightmare scenario imaginable.
So, ask yourself, how well does your practice educate and prepare your patients?
Here are a few reminders:
Before any procedure, make sure the patient is given a full understanding of everything that will take place in that chair so there are no surprises. Don’t assume even an adult with previous dental work knows what to expect.
Get into the practice of narrating your actions as you go, so your patient knows before the needle pierces their gum that you’re about to inject a local anesthetic.
Before performing any procedure that will require the patient to keep their mouth open for a long period of time, reduce the chance of “drowning panic” by letting them know the dental assistant will be suctioning water and saliva, or, if appropriate, allow the patient to hold the suction device.
Dental visits can be a huge source of fear and anxiety for some people. You can help by giving a complete overview of everything you’ll do, along with checking in with the patient about any pain or stress management preferences.
Make sure patients know that they have some options that can help reduce stress and make procedures a less daunting experience.
And make sure they know that they can put a pause on any procedure if they need a break or are experiencing more pain or stress than expected.
You and your practice are your patients’ best resource for accurate information about their oral health.
When performing x-rays and other tests, explain what you’re looking for and why you recommend such tests on a regular basis. Most people don’t know how quickly bacteria multiply and why professional cleaning is better than what they can do at home, for example.
If your examination reveals problems stemming from poor oral hygiene, review best practices and give a little insight as to why they’re important.
By fully reviewing and explaining everything with your patient, you make them a partner in their own oral health rather than a passive participant who sits in your chair looking to you to fix issues they could have helped prevent.
You also help them understand their role in maintaining their oral health and getting optimal results. This can help ensure that procedures like implants are successful, and that patients who develop infection or other complications follow up quickly.
Don’t assume, part 2
Don’t assume that your practice is already doing all of these things. Even the best practice can slip into complacency, and keeping up with patient education and preparation takes time. Make patient prep part of your practice culture so that it becomes second nature and your patients know they can trust you to keep them fully informed.
Dental practitioners are in a somewhat unique position in that their patients are awake during most procedures, which makes it all the more important that we make patients as comfortable with what we’re doing as possible.
About the Author
Dr. Charles Sutera , DMD, FAGD, is a doctor of dental medicine, TMJ specialist, board-certified in moderate dental anesthesiology, and renowned for high profile cosmetic dental reconstructions. He is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry and is the founder of his dental practice, Aesthetic Smile Reconstruction.
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