According to WebMD, between 9% and 20% of Americans avoid going to the dentist because of extreme dental anxiety.
I’m betting that if you’re reading this and you’re in the dental industry, you’ve experienced this multiple times in your career, and maybe even multiple times a day.
In her DenstistryIQ article “How to help your patients overcome dental phobia,” Dr. Leslie Townsend explains the problem and gives possible solutions to best soothing nervous patients.
“Every dentist experiences this on an almost daily basis – the terrified patient who cannot relax, no matter how well you explain that you’re not in the torture business,” she writes. “It’s a problem that knows no borders.”
Townsend goes on to write that a fear of going to the dentist can be found all over the world. Researchers in India studied the fear that the sound of a drill produces in patients, a study of women in Brazil linked their fear to socioeconomic factors, and dentists in Turkey, Singapore and the U.K. are trying to figure out what clothing the dental staff can wear that will help comfort their pediatric patients.
Understanding the phobia
At the most basic level, Townsend writes, the fear could come from letting a stranger put their fingers in the patient’s mouth, which goes against survival mechanisms to protect sensitive gums and vulnerable airways.
But some people suffer from more specific fears–needles, drills, gagging, choking or pain–which is called dentophobia or odontophobia.
“If patients confide in you about their anxiety – which will probably be all too apparent to you anyway – take a moment to try to understand what they’re afraid of,” she writes. “This will help you figure out the best way to help your patients cope.”
Townsend writes that just the simple act of asking about a patient’s anxiety will help them to relax, as it makes you appear more human and interested in them, and less likely to hurt them.
According to studies, what you wear should depend on who your patients are.
Townsend writes about studies conducted on children and their parents in Singapore, Turkey and the U.K. Both children and their parents in preferred that dentists wear personal protective equipment. However, children in Singapore and the U.K wanted informally dressed dentists, while Turkish children favored formal attire for their dentists.
The children in Singapore also preferred dentists of their own gender and ethnicity, but their parents mostly preferred young female dentists of the same ethnicity. The U.K. study found that children were more comfortable with a dentist of their own gender.
“While you can’t do much about your ethnicity and gender, you can tailor your clothing to your clientele,” Townsend writes. “These studies also suggest that having both male and female dentists on staff could be good for business.”
Being a good dental role model
Townsend writes that those who have a dental phobia probably got it from their parents.
“With all the things going against us in our efforts to calm patients – pain, noisy drills, needles – the last thing we need is for parents to pass their dental fears on to their children,” she writes. “But this fear was probably passed down to them from their parents, and down the line, back to when their forefathers had one relative designated as the “family tooth puller.” Now that was painful!”
Townsend goes onto write that a Spanish study published in a 2014 issue of the International Journal of Paediatric Dentistryfound that fathers’ fears of dentistry had an especially strong impact on children.
So, how do parents raise fearless little patients?
Townsend suggests informing new patients of the importance of starting dental care early and encourage them to not share their own fears about the dentist with their children.
Promote self care
Townsend thinks it’s important to help patients help themselves.
“Reassure them that all they need to do is give you a signal if they need more Novocain,” she writes. “Encourage your patients to close their eyes, put on headphones, and listen to whatever music calms them. Tell them to go ahead and zone out; you’ll squeeze their hand if you need to get their attention.”
If new patients call to schedule appointments and it’s apparent they have a dental phobia, she suggests to have your staff invite them in for a scaled-back getting-to-know-you appointment.
“Develop rapport, and they may become regular patients,” she writes. “Either way, by helping patients overcome their fears, you’ll have done your part for the greater good of humanity – or at least for humanity’s dental health.”