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See Ya Later, Patient Fear!

I there away something that I had not gone a day without for 33 years..

Do you combat patients’ fears daily? Do you know one of the best ways to beat the fight against anxiety and even deep-seated phobias? It isn’t medicating patients, it’s in the words we use to orient patients and ease their fears of what lies ahead.

This year I closed a door in my life on something that had defined me and shaped the fabric and routine of my life. I threw away something that I had not gone a day without for 33 years, my contacts and glasses and underwent LASIK. Although I was totally excited and the procedure was fully elective, I still was nervous. Despite the knowledge that I had of the procedure and the aftermath, I couldn’t help but feel some anxiety mounting as the day of the procedure arrived. It’s a weird sensation to be the patient rather than the doctor. Even stranger is to have very little clinical knowledge of the procedure that someone you don’t know too well is going to perform on your peepers.

You know what helped? And what helps nearly every patient I treat when they are getting ready to embark on something that they’ve never done before? Knowing what to expect. Yep, it’s as simple as that. To be the patient, and in an unfamiliar, often out-of-control position innately grates on many patients’ nerves. It’s the fear of the unknown or the fear of being caught unaware.

Whenever I’m venturing into an operatory for a first-time patient that is undergoing fillings, starting orthodontic treatment, or embarking on their first root canal, I make sure to inform them (especially if they are a details person) about the highlights of the appointment. Heck, this is helpful even with our “frequent flier” patients who are completing major blocks of treatment. It’s never unwelcome to preface the steps (in euphemistic terms of course) and give them clarity and comfort that what they feel is perfectly expected.

Am I going to shake their cheek during the numbing? Then tell them. Will I be placing a rubber dam or Isolite? Then show them before inserting it into their mouth. Will there be a weird smell or a vibration? Let them know to expect that. It feels so comforting to know ahead of time that the things that you are experiencing as a patient are to be expected.

As the bright lights of the laser shaped my cornea and the retraction moved my eyelids out of the surgical field, I was comforted by the steady voice of the doctor as he explained in kind, confident terms what to expect next. When suction was applied on my eyeball I was ready for it, I didn’t love it, but by preparing me for the oddity of it, I felt more at ease. When my vision went black (a totally terrifying experience potentially) instead of feeling a sense of doom, I thought, “oh yeah, this is what he told me about beforehand and informed me was going to transpire at this point.”

Many of us don’t often get the chance to be the patient. The next time you are in your hygiene operatory for a routine visit (assuming you can break in your day and get this done!) watch how your hygienists initiate you into what they are doing. While you are working chairside with your assistants evaluate how both you and your assistant guide the patient through the complexity of the procedure by keeping your cool, speaking reassuringly, and concisely explaining what to expect at each milestone throughout the procedure. Educate your team about how comforting and orienting it is to have simple directives and expectations explained to you prior to each point in the procedure.

Be even kinder to those patients going through their first filling, crown, endodontic, or oral surgery experience. This may be old hat for you, but this is the first time for them. Recognize that the mouth is a personal space, and be sure to use the same respect that you would want when experiencing it all as a patient.

The most often repeated questions I was asked: “but weren’t you nervous? How could you tolerate the suction/eyelid retractors?” My answer, “My doctor told me what to expect and, you know what, it really calmed me and prevented me from freaking out.” Do the same in your dental practice and it will make a huge difference and bind patients to you in ways you never imagined. Just by taking the time to introduce the play-by-play dialogue into your actions.

Do you have any specific things that you say to patients as you navigate through anxiety-causing procedures to help allay fears? What are your verbal pearls that set your patients at ease?

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