Effective communication is valuable in any business and invaluable when dealing with members of the public. In a dental practice, good communication can make the workplace more efficient and assist in team collaboration. Many dentists have well-honed technical skills, but by further developing their communication skills, they can improve the patient’s experience in several ways.
A wealth of books has been written on effective communication among staff; the strategies that will best fit for you will be determined by a host of factors. It’s difficult to quantify the benefit of communication, but by ensuring clear and efficient communication between staff, not only will things run more smoothly, the workplace will thrive in a happier space and patients will be able to tell the difference.
Technology can be a facilitator for improved communication among team members and between staff and patients. Systems such as interoffice messaging can enable staff to communicate seamlessly and discretely, avoiding the need to interrupt patient visits with queries for their practitioner. Digital patient files, appointments, and calendars can be synchronized more easily, and information for referral treatment can be shared better. Technology also allows the team to correspond with patients through automated reminders.
However, technology alone cannot substitute for interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, dental fear and anxiety remain a widespread phenomenon. In the U.S., 19% of adults admit to feeling slightly anxious before in dental practice settings.[i] While communication alone cannot be expected to solve this entirely, it is true that the more something is understood, the less frightening it becomes. Research backs this notion, but it is not simply a case of the more information the better—both the type of information given and the way it is delivered are important to how the patient responds. Of course, there is some variation depending on the psychology of the patient but providing a better understanding of procedures has been observed to significantly reduce patient anxiety.[ii]
Dental fear drives a vicious cycle wherein individuals delay or avoids visiting their dentist, which can lead to worsening dental problems. More severe dental issues lead to more invasive procedures, which are more likely to cause distress as opposed to patients who seek intervention earlier on. Solving phobias may be outside of the dental practitioner’s remit but educating patients can help alleviate dental fears and put their mind at ease. [iii]
Beyond fear, surveys reveal that patient recollection of dental health advice and agreed-upon actions following consultation is poor.[iv] Patients are unlikely to follow advice and procedures they do not remember, which consequently impact their oral health. Memory formation is a complex area of study, and there are numerous suggestions on how to improve recall, such as more patient-led discussions and take-home notes.
When possible, it is beneficial to visually present information to patients, as this will help their understanding and recollection. Research indicates that visual memory is considerably more robust than auditory; moreover, complex visual information seems to be more easily and rapidly absorbed than auditorily.[v] [vi] Recent developments in education indicate that multisensory learning (i.e. receiving information through more than one sense simultaneously) produces a marked improvement in both learning and recognition.[vii] By using visual aids in conjunction with an explanation, you can expect your patient to better understand and recall details of their visit.
Potential technology that can be a visual aid to patients would include intraoral scanners and 3D scans. Intraoral scanners can reconstruct 3D impressions of patients’ mouths, providing a view that can assist with comprehension. Not only does it provide a visual aid, but it is a faster and more comfortable experience for dental patients. Cone beam computed tomography (CBCT) also offers greater understanding for patients and dentists by providing a variety of views and angles for an accurate evaluation. Unlike x-rays, it can even image bone and soft tissue.
Finally, when thinking about communication, it can be all too easy to focus on how we express things. Patients feel more comfortable and confident in their dentist when they feel they are being listened to.[viii] A busy practice may deter a clinician from dedicating enough time to carefully listen, but satisfying the need for communication is vital to any relationship. The steps you take to better the means of communication will go a long way to achieving a productive and lasting relationship between the dental practitioner and patient.
[i] White, A., Giblin, L., Hill K., Boyd,L. The prevalence of dental anxiety in dental practice settings. JDH: Journal of Dental Hygiene. 2017; 91 (1) 30-34. Available at https://jdh.adha.org/content/91/1/30 Accessed September 10, 2018.
[ii] Kiyohara L.Y., Kayano L., Oliveira L.M., Yamamoto M.U., Inagaki M.M., Ogawa N.Y., Gonzales P.E.S.M., Mandelbaum R., Okubo S.T., Watanuki T., Vieira J.E. Surgery information reduces anxiety in the pre-operative period. Revista do Hospital das Clinicas. 2004; 59(2):51-56. Available at http://ref.scielo.org/qjm3bw Accessed April 26, 2018.
[iii] Armfield J.M., Stewart J.F., Spencer A.J. The vicious cycle of dental fear: exploring the interplay between oral health service utilization and dental fear. BMC Oral Health. 2007; 7(1). Available at https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6831-7-1 Accessed April 26, 2018.
[iv] Misra S., Daly B., Dunne S., Millar B., Packer M., Asimakopoulou K. Dentist-patient communication: what do patients and dentists remember following a consultation? Implications for patient compliance. Patient Preference and Adherence. 2013; 7:543-549. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3693916/ Accessed April 26, 2018.
[v] Cohen M.A., Horowitz T.S., Wolfe J.M. Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2009; 106(14): 6008-6010. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2667065/ Accessed April 26, 2018.
[vi] Lindner K., Blosser G., Cunigan K. Visual versus auditory learning memory recall performance on short-term versus long-term tests. Modern Psychological Studies. 2009; 15(1):39-46. Available at https://scholar.utc.edu/mps/vol15/iss1/6/ Accessed April 26, 2018.
[vii] Seitz A.R., Kim R., Shams L. Sound facilitates visual learning. Current Biology. 2006; 16(14):1422-1427. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982206016319 Accessed April 26, 2018.
[viii] Sbaraini A., Carter S.M., Evans R.W., Blinkhorn A. Experiences of dental care: what do patients value? BMC Health Services Research. 2012; 12:177. Available at https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6963-12-177 Accessed April 18.