4 Tips for Dealing with the Patients Who Fear You

You’d be hard-pressed to find a dentist working today who has ever had a patient leap into the chair, too excited to sit still: “I’ve been waiting for this all month, doc! Get to it!”

The reality is, no matter how much good dentists do, very few patients actually enjoy a “trip to chair.” An estimated seventy to seventy-five percent of adults in the US experience some amount of fear when it comes to having a relative stranger poke around in their mouths with noisy instruments. Of that percentage, about five to ten percent of exhibit a fear strong enough fear to be labeled a dental phobia.

This is problematic, of course: people who are deeply afraid of going to the dentist probably won’t. And as you would surmise, people who fear dentists typically have worse dental health than those who don’t–and not just because they avoid the dentist: logic would dictate that a fear of dental visits would incentivize folks to take extra good care of their teeth at home, but it usually doesn’t work like that. In some cases, the phobia has more to do with fear of having ANYthing done to one’s teeth, including self-brushing. That, naturally, leads to cavities, when require even more attention to the teeth, and the cycle can feed on itself.

Clearing the Air(way)

As it turns out, there are actually biological reasons that explain the desire to keep dentists out of our mouths. To start with, the mouth is a particularly vulnerable part of our body: getting all up in the mouth’s personal space tends to threaten some very basic needs, including having open air passages. And if that area is already in pain, things can feel exponentially worse.

Then there’s the upside-down-and-out-of-control factor: once you’ve tilted that chair back far enough to access the mouth, your patient is feeling almost upside down. Plus, you’ve put the patient in a situation where he or she can hardly talk or respond. That can create a lot of anxiety for some people. As one researcher states, “We have deep biological survival mechanisms. Fear and avoidance are also naturally triggered when we experience pain.”

Learning Not to Dread the Drill

As a dentist, there are few steps you can take to help combat odontophobia in patients:

  1. Be professional. Remind patients that you do this for a living, you keep up with the latest advances and training, and that you treat hundreds of patients–many who also suffer from fear.
  2. Request reviews. Ask patients who are comfortable with you for a short recommendation or social media review. Large groups like AARP suggest that all members check online review sites before trying a new merchant–the same holds true for a new dentist.
  3. Offer “consultations.” If a patient understands that you aren’t going to do anything but check out the situation, he or she might feel secure with an exploratory initial visit.
  4. Provide a fail-safe. Create a signal–something as simple as holding up two fingers–that means you will immediately pause what you are doing. This can give the patient a sense of control.

Obviously, none of these steps can cure odontophobia, but they can help in the short term. Over the long term, education is our best bet. As patients learn more advances in pain-free dentistry, they will hopefully accept that they have nothing to fear. In the meantime, taking patients’ fears seriously and professionally creates a win-win situation for both you and your patient.