Anyone who has spent his or her career in the oral health profession knows all too well the toll that fear can take on patients. The Columbia University College of…


Anyone who has spent his or her career in the oral health profession knows all too well the toll that fear can take on patients. The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine estimates that at least 15% of Americans endure some degree of fear ranging from mild anxiety to devastating terror.

Even advances in dental coverage, technology and anesthesia have done little to soothe the apprehensions of patients. That is because most of these are irrational, not based on fact or reasoning. Instead of trying to argue patients out of feelings of panic, there are several subtle features you can implement into your office to make them as comfortable as possible.  

A Positive First Impression

The environment that a patient sees and feels the minute he or she steps through your office door can make a tremendous difference in his or her attitude.

Anything you can do to minimize the harsh, clinical feel of the room can be very helpful. Instill a tranquil atmosphere by engaging your patient’s senses on many levels.

    • Paint your walls in warm, welcoming colors.
    • Hang calming pictures that show relaxing landscape scenes.
    • Consider scented candles or some other form of deodorizer for the office.
    • Buffer the newcomer from the sounds of tools or other patients by playing music or installing a sound machine or fountain.
    • To provide additional distraction, add an aquarium stocked with colorful fish.
    • Having a variety of books, magazines and video games available is another great way to occupy fearful patients.
    • If you are particularly creative, you might even want to adopt a specific office theme. While this can be most effective if your patients are children, even adults tend to respond positively to an intentional atmosphere. Perhaps you could decorate your space like a jungle or a movie theater.

Helpful Staff

    • Even if you have the most innovative or restful décor possible, cosmetic improvements alone may not completely alleviate patient concerns. It all begins with your staff. Positive human interaction and reassurance are some of the most powerful tools you possess, and you can use them to instill calm and relaxation into everyone who enters your office suite, regardless of who they are or what dental coverage they possess.
    • No one wants to encounter a receptionist who is brusque, preoccupied or unfriendly. Ensure that your staff members, the first people to interact with your patients, are caring and helpful, as well as empathetic.
    • Encourage them to introduce themselves by their first name so your patient can begin to feel that he or she has a personal relationship with them.
    • Have your staff offer water or ask if there is anything else that can be done to make the patient comfortable.
    • Be sure your receptionists are experts in the dental coverage you accept and that they are able to answer any of the patient’s questions. Financial concerns and even a lack of dental coverage can often exacerbate other anxieties a patient is feeling.

Sedation Options

In the practice of sedation dentistry, patients receive anesthesia for even routine procedures in order to diminish anxiety. For those who would otherwise avoid the dentist altogether or postpone their appointments, the prospect of sedation can alleviate phobias and enable nervous patients to get the treatment they need. If you opt to offer sedation, clearly explain the steps of the process to the patient.

Final Considerations

Here are a few final things you can do to help instill calm and alleviate fear in your patients.

    • Make sure your equipment is up-to-date and well-maintained. An older drill might be perfectly serviceable but noisy, increasing patients’ anxiety. Take advantage of state-of-the-art innovations such as digital imaging and laser tools.
    • Perhaps most important of all, consciously work to radiate empathy, caring and knowledge to all your patients. The warmth and competence you display will both set a great example to your staff and be the best thing you can do to relieve patient fears.

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