Our job is to educate our patients regarding their dental needs and provide for their wants. Like any relationship, communication is critical for building understanding. I recall being in dental hygiene school, listening to one of my classmates explain to her patient that he had periodontal disease and needed scaling and root planing. He looked at her and said, “what is periodontal disease?” Her response: “it’s the apical migration of the junctional epithelium.”
Though her answer was correct and would have aced her dental terminology exam, that response left that patient confused and no more aware of what was going on in his mouth than before. I am also positive that he didn’t know what scaling and root planning were, but who would ask another question after getting a response that he couldn’t comprehend? Again, I wish this was limited to an educational setting, but it’s not. Being out of school for ten years and having overheard conversations of numerous dental professionals, I assure you that patient communication in dental offices needs assistance.
So, let’s discuss the art of patient communication and the quality of the patient experience. The most easily applicable methods to improve communication are matching and mirroring, being conscious of vocabulary, and offering patient-centric care.
Matching and Mirroring
Matching and mirroring is a quick way to build a better rapport with your patients. It can also be worked on with minimal effort and will help professionally and personally. All you have to do is mimic your patient by using their words and their body language.
Why would you do this? People like and trust those who appear to be more like them. Many patients cite dental fear as a reason they avoid the dentist. If they like you, they are more likely to become a lifelong patient. By using similar language and cues subconsciously, we begin to accept others. For example, if they speak loud and fast, increase your volume and animation. If they are soft, slow, and more relaxed, match them at this level instead. Pace and volume matching is easy and less evident than physical mimicry.2 You should always be sitting when talking to a patient, as standing over them and telling them about all their problems can be intimidating.
Like matching and mirroring, using similar vocabulary can help patients better understand their needs. Unfortunately, like my colleague in dental hygiene school, many of us fall victim to terminology. It is drilled into us during our education, and it can be hard to speak outside of these terms when discussing treatment, but vocabulary with patients needs to be simmered down to their level of understanding.
Think about how they currently receive information; most newspapers are written at a 6th-8th grade reading level.3 Do you think a 13-year-old knows what a lingual frenum is? Using words like “junctional epithelium” and “buccal mucosa” will leave your patient with no better understanding of what is going on in their mouth. For example, if they use “cap” instead of a “crown,” it would be wise to use the same word to help them understand the treatment they will receive.
Offer Patient-Centric Care
Patient-centric care is the most critical and challenging aspect of patient communication, as the patient has to feel heard. It puts the patient at the forefront of all decision-making and treatment.1 We’ve all been in a situation where a patient has an active disease or infection, but they want their teeth whitened, and it’s HARD. We want to, and as the law demands, are mandated to address the thing that can potentially kill them, but they’re worried about white teeth!
It’s a challenge and a dance to address both of these things. The easiest thing to do is discuss the whitening first. This way, they know that you heard what is most important to them.
Don’t: “Let’s worry about your whitening later. You have a lot of other needs that we have to take care of first. The problem is that you need a root canal and crown on #8 because your abscess will worsen.”
Do: “We can do that! We have great whitening options! We can make you a custom tray that’s made for you and will whiten your teeth easily. I do have to mention what I also see on your x-rays. I see an active infection on one of the back teeth that needs immediate attention to keep you healthy and out of pain. Have you had any pain in that area?”
By addressing their chief concern first, they will be more open to hearing about the clinical needs that we know they require. This can dramatically improve your case acceptance because everyone wants an office that listens to them.
Don’t Make It All About Dentistry
Remember that a person is sitting in your chair. Communicating with them shouldn’t just be about their teeth. Ask about their interests, hobbies, and family. Find common ground with them and build a foundation from there. Every patient is a potential relationship; treat that patient like lunch with a new friend. Getting to know them and creating a likability factor is essential for them to want to return to your office and be treated by you.
By applying these simple concepts of communication in your practice, you will find higher enrollment in treatment and an experience that you and the patient can both enjoy!
- Scambler S, Gupta A, Asimakopoulou K. Patient-centred care–what is it and how is it practised in the dental surgery? Health Expect. 2015 Dec;18(6):2549-58. doi: 10.1111/hex.12223. Epub 2014 Jun 20. PMID: 24948386; PMCID: PMC5810625.
- Edwards, Vanessa Van. “Mirroring Body Language: 4 Steps to Successfully Mirror Others.” Science of People, 17 June 2022, https://www.scienceofpeople.com/mirroring/.
- “Plain Language Resources.” Literacy Alliance of the Shuswap Society, https://shuswapliteracy.ca/about-us/resources/plain-language-resources/#:~:text=Most%20newspapers%20are%20written%20at%20a%20grade%206%2D8%20readability%20level.
About the Author
Kristin Goodfellow is the Chief Clinical Officer for OraCare, a dental products company that is dedicated to improving the standard of care. She completed her dental hygiene degree at Allegany College of Maryland and obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication Studies from West Virginia University. Kristin also serves as a Senior Executive Consultant for Cellerant, is a member of the Best of Class Hygiene committee and is a liaison to 7 dental practices in West Virginia. She utilizes her communication, dentistry, and leadership skills to integrate new protocols that promote optimal patient care.