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Communication in dentistry: An essential element of quality dental care

25% of dental patients say they are not satisfied with their last dental consultation. In the vast majority of cases, this dissatisfaction is due to a poor "patient experience". This patient experience is often indexed on the few minutes of communication between practitioner and patient... Indeed, communication plays a fundamental role in all areas of medicine, and dentistry is no exception. As healthcare professionals, we need to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with our patients to ensure a good experience and thus be able to provide quality care. In this article, we'll explore the issues surrounding communication in dentistry, the challenges and the methods that can be put in place to use good communication as an asset to the care service.

The importance of communication in dentistry

To provide the best care for your patients, it's essential to establish a relationship of trust with them. Good listening and communication are key to this. Patients need to feel comfortable sharing their concerns, medical history and symptoms. This space for exchange is vital, as it will enable you to get a complete picture of their oral health, so that you can offer them appropriate care.

Indeed, patients need to feel listened to and understood when they share their concerns. As a healthcare professional, you owe it to yourself to show empathy and care, taking the time to listen actively and answering all their questions clearly and comprehensibly. Patients not only need to understand, they also need to feel that you're taking the time they need during their consultation. It's important to understand that, from the practitioner's point of view, we have a complete picture of our day at the office, the number of patients we'll be seeing, the procedures we'll be performing and their technicality, whereas the patient will mainly remember the few minutes you spend with him or her. It's often these few minutes alone that will give them a positive or negative impression of the consultation. Generally speaking, for healthcare professionals, taking the time to listen attentively to their patients and providing them with clear, direct and explained answers promotes mutual understanding and strengthens the relationship of trust between practitioner and patient. 

*According to our study, 42% of dental patients find that their practitioner provides little or no explanation. 

A trusting relationship between dentist and patient is not just about communication. It's also about creating a welcoming and reassuring environment in the dental practice. Patients need to feel comfortable and confident when they come for a consultation: this means warm, caring staff, a pleasant atmosphere and impeccable cleanliness in your practice. Once a relationship of trust has been established, the collaboration between dentist and patient is fruitful! Patients will be more inclined to follow your recommendations, take care of their oral health and return for their annual visit. They may also feel more confident to discuss their specific concerns and needs, enabling you to offer even more personalized and tailored solutions.

Teaching dental patients

Patient education is an essential aspect of the dental profession, and one of the key elements of good patient communication. As you know, oral health is a good indicator of general health, and you have a front-row seat to report on it. You therefore have a crucial educational role to play in explaining good hygiene practices, promoting preventive measures and explaining the source of the various problems you may report.

As mentioned above, during consultations, you should use simple terms and avoid complex medical jargon to ensure that patients fully understand the information communicated. You can illustrate your explanations with diagrams, models or even videos to make concepts more concrete and easy to assimilate. These days, digital tools are an excellent way of grabbing patients' attention and using a format they're used to referring to in other aspects of their daily lives. Our latest study revealed that 70% of patients thought that a color code to highlight the features of the X-ray could have helped them identify pathologies more easily.

You can also take advantage of the clinical examination to show patients the problem areas of their mouths, explain the factors that contribute to dental problems and the possible consequences of not taking proper care. By visually explaining the effects of tooth decay, bone loss or other oral conditions, you can raise patients' awareness of the importance of good hygiene and the impact of not treating them.

As part of good oral hygiene practice, you can explain tooth-brushing technique, flossing, the importance of a balanced diet and other specific preventive measures. You can also recommend dental products tailored to individual patient needs, such as special toothbrushes, mouthwashes or interdental brushes.

According to our study, 58% of respondents would have liked to have images or illustrations of their pathologies or treatment. This statistic is proof that communication in dentistry is not limited to the consultation. Dentists can also provide physical or digital resources, such as brochures, leaflets, blog posts or educational sheets, to help patients deepen their understanding of dental problems and appropriate care. Still according to our study, 46% of patients would also have liked simple information sheets on diagnosis and treatment.

By educating patients, you empower them with the knowledge they need to take care of their oral health. Patients are then better equipped to make informed decisions about their treatment and dental care habits. This contributes, in the short term, to better collaboration between you and your patient, promoting better treatment results and, in the long term, better oral and general health.

The challenges of communication in dentistry

Combating patient anxiety 

A visit to the dentist is not always a pleasant experience for patients, and can lead to reluctance or anxiety. This anxiety can create an initial barrier to communication. You need to take this into account and try to understand your patients' emotional needs. The key is to put yourself in their shoes: what are their feelings? Why don't they trust you? Have they had traumatic experiences in the past? Empathic listening is an essential skill to develop as a healthcare professional. You need to be attentive to your patients' concerns and emotions, giving them the opportunity to express themselves freely. Let them know you understand their fears and worries. By establishing a climate of trust and respect, you help to calm their anxieties and create an environment conducive to more open and honest communication. The final determining factor is time. Taking the necessary time is important in managing patient anxiety. In some cases, your patients may need more time to express themselves or ask questions. So you need to be patient and respect each individual's pace, avoiding rushing them or making them feel judged. It's with this individualized attention that you'll be able to help your patients reduce their anxiety while building solid trust. You can also implement relaxation techniques, offering deep breathing, muscle relaxation or other stress management techniques to help patients unwind.

Anxiety in medicine is often treated and resolved by identifying the cause of the "stress". The best way to combat anxiety is to explain the care you're going to provide, and to visually show patients the steps involved.

The barrier of medical terminology

In France, 56% of patients don't accept their treatment because they don't understand the importance of getting treatment in the short term. The barrier of medical terminology can be a challenge to communication in dentistry, especially since our society is educated to think that pain is the starting point for a consultation. Yet, in dentistry, there may be elements to be treated without the patient seeing, feeling or presenting symptoms.

Although our profession is highly technical, when communicating with your patients, you must at all costs avoid excessive use of complex medical terms. Opt for simple, accessible terms to explain potential dental problems and care. For example, instead of using terms like "gingivitis" or "periodontitis", simply explain that these are gum problems that can lead to bleeding, recession or inflammation. You can also use analogies or metaphors to make the explanations more concrete. This will help your patients because, in most cases, they leave the consultation without having understood their problem, or worse, having understood something else... 36% of patients say they didn't fully understand the treatment proposed during their last consultation. If you really want to communicate effectively with your patients, visualization is one of the most effective strategies for overcoming this barrier. You can use anatomical models, diagrams or even X-ray images to visually show patients their oral problems and the different treatment options. 

According to our latest study, 49% of patients would have liked their practitioner to have software that could support his or her explanations. Indeed, we're all familiar with digital interfaces by now, and this one offers a tangible tool to fuel the exchange. Technology therefore has a role to play in this transmission of information. Many software applications are emerging to simplify patient/practitioner communication. Allisone is a software application based on artificial intelligence that enables you to explain dental X-rays to your patients in a visual, entertaining and educational way, making it easier for them to understand and become more involved in their oral health. As with all subjects that we don't master, a support will enable your patient to focus on specific points and ask targeted questions on points they may not have fully understood. Don't forget to encourage your patients to ask questions if certain points need clarification. This will help create an environment where patients feel comfortable asking for clarification on terms or concepts they are unfamiliar with. 

Lack of time 

As mentioned, your patients need time to ask questions, express their concerns and understand the information provided to them. They also need to feel that you are taking the necessary time and considering each patient individually. 

By giving adequate time and attention to each patient, you'll be able to establish effective communication and guarantee mutual understanding. Think about your organization too, and schedule appointments that are long enough for each patient. This will give you the time you need to actively listen to your patient's concerns and respond with clear, detailed information. Finally, you can also take advantage of various tools to optimize the time you spend with patients: visual aids such as diagrams or models to explain oral problems. In the post-consultation phase, you can also provide written or online resources, such as informative brochures or links to websites, so that patients can deepen their knowledge on their own. Here again, visual tools such as Allisone can help, as images can sometimes help to convey information more easily. Allisone also makes it possible to create treatment plans and teaching sheets in just a few clicks, and thus smoothes the patient pathway. 

It may seem like a considerable waste of time to devote the necessary time and attention to this. On the other hand, taking the time to discuss and understand your patients during the initial consultation will drastically increase the rate of adherence to your treatment plans. Not only will this be an economic advantage for your practice, which will receive more patients for treatment and see them return on a regular basis, it will also enable you to do what you do best: provide care. 

How can we improve communication in dentistry?

Developing communication skills

Here are some key skills that can help you communicate more effectively:

Practicing active listening: Active listening is an essential skill for quality communication. You need to be able to listen attentively to your patients, giving them your full attention and showing interest in what they are saying. This involves focusing on the words, emotions and concerns expressed by the patient, while avoiding interruptions and distractions. Active listening also allows you to detect unexpressed elements. 

Rephrasing: Rephrasing involves repeating or summarizing the information provided by your patient to ensure that you have understood it correctly. This clarifies important points, verifies mutual understanding and shows the patient that he or she is being listened to and understood.

Develop empathy: Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes and understand their emotions and experiences. Develop your sense of empathy by showing sensitivity and understanding towards your patients' concerns and fears.

Clarifying information: You need to be able to explain information clearly and comprehensibly to your patients, adapting to their level of understanding of the subject. Limit the use of complex medical terms and favor simple, accessible explanations. Don't hesitate to use visual aids such as diagrams, models or pictures to make explanations more concrete.

Use visual aids: As mentioned above, in some cases it can be difficult for patients to understand verbal explanations. Visual aids such as Allisone can help:  

  • Making it easier for your patients to understand
  • Improve your patients' experience
  • Increase adherence to your treatment plans
  • Build trust between practitioner and patient

Encourage questions and active participation: Encourage your patients to ask questions and actively participate in discussions about their oral health. By creating an open and welcoming environment, you enable patients to feel comfortable expressing their concerns, questions and needs. Two-way communication strengthens the relationship between you and your patient and promotes better dental care outcomes.

Effective communication in dentistry is essential to building trust, understanding your patients' needs, educating them and ensuring quality dental care. Despite potential challenges, you can implement strategies to improve this communication. By realizing this, you'll be able to work on your weak points. Develop your communication skills, use visual aids and encourage your patients' active participation! Effective communication contributes to your patients' overall satisfaction and to increasing your adherence rates to treatment plans.

Would you like to know why 25% of dental patients are not satisfied with their last consultation? If so, take a look at our study, in which you'll find all the figures mentioned above, by clicking here. 

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