Compassion Needed for the Dental Patient

September 21, 2020

"It will cost…how much?" Understanding that many patients are already uneasy about going to the dentist can help you have compassion when treatment costs add to their unease.

Dental care is a luxury. Just look at my checkbook. In 3 weeks, I have dropped over $5000 on my mouth. The temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) specialist took $1700, the endodontist got $1300, and now, my dentist is getting $1500 for the cavity and new crown. I don’t have dental insurance.

Luckily, I do not have many vices. I shop resale, no restaurants, no vacations, no cable, and I live a modest life. I save for a rainy day. But guess what? My dental work is a downpour like I have never seen before. Why all this disclosure? I can afford my dental care. But so many of us cannot.

How does it make you feel? A patient comes in and needs some awfully expensive dental work, and they cannot afford it. I do not know about you, but I feel guilty. I know this is a business. Everything has a cost. I cannot even imagine how many people there are out there who are suffering. To live with TMJ pain or a multitude of painful dental diagnoses frankly scares me half to death. Have you thought about how many people are out there in your community dealing with chronic dental pain?

I am talking about headaches, jaw pain, no range of motion, sleep deprivation, jaw clicking, and ear pain. Yes, I do have a big mouth and should shut it more often than I do, but it is a critical tool in the work that I do. This girl must eat and talk. People know I am in deep trouble if I do not do either of those things. Just ask my husband.

What happens to people who are suffering? If you are in pain, even for a short time, it changes you. You do not have the patience that you normally have. Emotions fly all over the place when you are suffering. The list goes on and on.

Let us talk about the concern for addiction. I have been given Valium, nighttime muscle relaxers, daytime muscle relaxers, plus high doses of Ibuprofen. If any of these did more than just take the edge off my suffering, I could see how someone would self-medicate to end their nightmare. Even if medicine does not do anything, some people take it out of desperation, hoping for any relief. My point is this; we must be incredibly careful managing the pain of patients.

If you met me or saw me running a program on a Zoom call, you would have no idea the dental struggles I face. To the rest of the world, I look great. My makeup is intact. I am wearing professional clothes and jewelry. But I am also suffering. You cannot always tell if someone is in pain.

I was a drug treatment counselor in a previous life. Quite often, I had patients with prescription drug addictions. They would go from one doctor to the next, reporting the same symptoms and getting new prescriptions. Addictions to medications may start because of pain. When they cannot get prescriptions anymore, they may turn to alcohol and illicit drugs to medicate themselves. Blissfully, I have never been in that situation.

So, why am I sharing this with you? Alcoholism and drug addiction are on the rise right now, especially during the pandemic. People are struggling not just with physical pain, but emotional pain and financial pain as well. To say that our society, let alone our world, is not stressed by the pandemic is quite an understatement. We are all struggling. Some are coping quite well. Others, not so well.

What this means for the dental professional is that they must have empathy for the patients in pain. We are not trying to be difficult if we call every day to see if there are any cancellations. My advice? If you do not have a cancellation list, start one. It will cut down on the calls and will give your patients assurance that they do not have to keep hounding you.

There are fewer patient openings right now, even for emergencies. When I tried to find a TMJ doctor here in Cleveland, it was ridiculous. I was fortunate to get a 3-week appointment. The next available appointment for any TMJ doctor was over 2 months. Hours are limited as well as the maximum number of patients in the office, yet people’s pain continues. Be understanding with those patients. They are not trying to be manipulative. They are trying to survive.

You have no idea how much just the words, “I am so sorry that you are having all this pain,” means to someone suffering. Remember to be compassionate, but also be aware of addiction. It is a tough balancing act for both you and the patient.

How is your practice managing patients with pain issues on your pandemic schedule? Share your thoughts with me on this issue by emailing at diana2@discussdirectives.com.