Why aren't patients seeking dental care more often? It may have something to do with practices not addressing patient concerns before they walk into the office.
“The tone of their voice, the way [your staff] are attempting to diminish some of [the patient's] anxiety and fears is crucial." - Samuel Low, D.D.S.
According to a survey by Delta Dental Plans Association, only 25 percent of Americans are extremely satisfied with the health of their mouth, teeth and gums. So, why aren’t they going to the dentist more frequently?
Fear. And in most cases, it’s a deeply rooted fear tracing back to a negative childhood experience. Helping to ease these fears can benefit both patients and dental practices.
Two of American’s most common fears include the fear of public speaking (glossophobia), and the fear of heights (acrophobia).
And while dentophobia, the fear of visiting the dentist, does not make the top ten list, a close cousin, trypanophobia, the fear of needles or injections, comes in at number five.
“There is no doubt that the number one reason for anxiety in the dental chair is due to previous experiences as a child,” Low says. “It is crystal clear that those first impressions when a patient of any age sees a dentist have a critical sequela for the rest of their lives.”
Low says he sees patients’ fears virtually every day. It comes in the form of perspiration on the lip, agitation, wringing of the hands. He says patients will try to circumvent going to the dentist by ingesting a fair amount of medicaments so that they can “get through this” on their own.
And yet, a survey conducted by Delta Dental Plans Association reveals that 85 percent of Americans believe that oral health is very or extremely important to their overall health.
Nevertheless, the same survey found that 42 percent of Americans don’t see a dentist as often as they would like. Low believes he knows why.
“We used to think it was financial considerations that kept patients out of a dental practice,” he explains. “But I would suggest that fear and anxiety is right up there with the financial aspect.”
And finances impact dentists as well. Low says that dentists lose money if a new patient exam does not convert to case acceptance.
“We spend a great deal of time on what we call loss leaders on a new patient exam,” he says. “If they don’t convert, or if they’re not compliant, we lose money.”
Low says it can be quite threatening when a patient first enters a dental operatory. A high-speed drill, radiology equipment, and a wide range of sharp tools are in close proximity. Then patients sit and wait for the dentist, all the time viewing those ‘threatening’ objects. Fears are heightened.
What some practices are doing when bringing patients in for a first visit is limiting that visit strictly to a consultation.
“Patients are brought into a very nice non-dental room with nice, overstuffed chairs, to make them comfortable,” he says. “If you have any type of available square footage in your facility, it’s well worth spending your time initially, even as a loss leader, to gain what you’re going to gain in production by having a solid, committed, compliant patient.”
And easing patient concerns should be a practice-wide culture. Low says one of the most critical people in a practice, and sometimes most overlooked, is the person who answers the phone. Because they are an extension of the dentist.
“The tone of their voice, the way they are attempting to diminish some of your anxiety and fears is crucial,” Low says. “So, even before the patient gets there, a calming voice, I care about you, is critical and preps them for the visit.”
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Low says he conducts an extensive interview with new patients relative to their previous dental experiences. Were they positive? Were they negative? And he asks for specifics that can help he and his staff better manage the patient.
“And write it down,” Low stresses. “Many practices go through this litany of interviews but don’t actually record it. Because when our dental hygienists who weren’t in the room when the interview was originally conducted see the patient, they want to be able to refer back. If you’re not going to write it down, it’s probably not worth your time doing it.”
Back to trypanophobia, the fear of needles or injections. Low says getting that injection to numb areas of the mouth is one procedure in oral healthcare that patients detest.
“There is still an art to numbing,” he says, “and sometimes we’ve lost that art. Lost that ability to give numbing and have patients not feel it. That’s why it’s critical to identify these things at the very beginning so you can better manage patient concerns.”