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Best Practices for Dentists to Soothe Patient Dental Anxiety

Posted December 11, 2018

Kate Harveston

Dental anxiety is very real. Furthermore, avoiding the dentist due to this anxiety can lead to worse outcomes down the road, not only for the patient’s teeth but in other areas of the body as well. Despite the risks, some dentists don’t spend much time thinking about how to alleviate anxiety in their patients.

Here are some suggestions for those in the dental health field to follow that will help to calm anxious patients.

Avoid Overscheduling

Think back to the last time you truly dreaded something. Maybe it was a big exam, maybe it was a performance review at work. Whatever the cause, think about the time you spent waiting. As time went on, did your fears worsen?

In almost all cases, yes. The mere act of waiting increases anxiety significantly, as it gives the mind time to dwell on all the potential negative outcomes. With each click of the second hand on the office clock, dental-phobic patients feel their level of anxiety rise.

Therefore, one simple way to ease the anxiety of phobic patients is to avoid overscheduling whenever possible. Understandably, urgent matters do arise which require immediate time. But from a patient perspective, a wait of five minutes is far more tolerable than a wait of 30 or more. Plus, you give them less time to decide to head for the door.

Practice Clear Communication

A common complaint about all medical practitioners is that patients don’t clearly understand what their health professional is trying to communicate. Practice communicating clearly and simply with all patients. 

Take a few extra moments to explain to patients what they may see, hear, and feel during their procedure. The fear that arises from not knowing what to expect is generally much worse than simply being informed that a procedure may cause discomfort.

Offer Options for Sedation

Many patients with dental anxiety benefit greatly from sedation. This can be accomplished either prior to or during their appointment date.

Patients with severe dental anxiety may benefit from being referred to their family physician for a short-term course of anti-anxiety medications which they can take prior to their dental appointment. Best practices dictate that dentists inquire whether the patient has taken any medications prior to the procedure to avoid any potential drug interactions from additional sedatives the dentist may utilize.

Some dental practitioners offer in-office sedation via a variety of methods. In addition to anti-anxiety medications, practitioners may utilize nitrous oxide, local anesthetics, or even general anesthesia delivered via IV.

Patients with more extreme anxiety may benefit from general sedation, while those with milder anxiety may do well with a local anesthetic. Offering patients a choice in and of itself can help to ease anxiety, as it gives them a sense of control over the procedure.

Provide Distractions and a Calming Environment

Don’t overlook the obvious step of creating a calming environment rich in distractions. While items such as televisions may seem an unnecessary extravagance, to anxious patients they can provide a needed escape. Essential oil diffusers are an inexpensive investment that can mask antiseptic “hospital” smells associated with medical practices.

Painting in calming colors such as lavender and blue and providing a variety of reading materials are a few other simple steps almost any practice can fit into their operating budget. One very simple distraction many practitioners overlook is providing a public Wi-Fi connection so patients can escape into their phones or tablets.

Up to 22 percent of patients experience extreme dental anxiety. That’s a big number, particularly when you consider the oftentimes severe consequences that can result from long-term, unchecked dental anxiety.

Dental anxiety leads to dental care avoidance. Not only can this lead to fewer appointments, but it also means that when patients do seek care, their problems are likely to be far more severe, more extensive and require more painful procedures such as extractions and root canals instead of basic cleanings. By taking steps to ease dental anxiety, practitioners ensure their patients get the care they need to keep a healthy smile for life.

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