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Combating patient anxiety with clear education

Media presentations deliver the message

By Jana Berghoff, RDH, FAADOM

Dental patient education

Patient anxiety is one of the most common issues that dental professionals face. Even though dentistry has changed dramatically in the past decades, certain procedures -- root canals being the classic example -- have developed reputations that border on folklore. These myths are often perpetuated in TV and film to the point that even today patients associate the term "root canal" with lengthy suffering in the dental chair. This is despite the fact that in modern offices, the treatment is nothing to fear.

In other cases, simple misunderstandings can confuse patients and give rise to doubts about a procedure. For instance, it's not uncommon to hear scaling and root planing referred to as a "deep cleaning." But when an anxious patient hears this, it's easy for him or her to envision a typical cleaning -- with no anesthesia and moderate discomfort -- and assume that a "deep cleaning" amplifies the experience and creates pain on every tooth.

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In both of these examples, the lack of knowledge and the fear of pain combine to make patients jittery and noncommittal to treatment. A recommendation for scaling and root planing is especially easy for patients to ignore.

"I get regular cleanings all the time," they think. "Why do I need a deep cleaning? Why is the situation suddenly different?"

With this attitude, it's not surprising that many patients don't want to move forward with the service. Their fear and lack of knowledge stand in the way of recognizing the value of the treatment.

Fighting back with effective patient education

One solution to these challenges is to implement a patient education program that uses media-rich illustrations and explanations of treatments to show patients exactly what they should expect. We have orientation sessions for so many other anxious situations in life, from beginning kindergarten to the first day of a new job, so why shouldn't there be orientation for an unfamiliar and potentially expensive dental procedure? With a simple video presentation, dental offices can help dramatically reduce patient anxiety and increase case acceptance.

There are several reasons why video illustrations are so ideal for the dental office. First, they give patients a clear visual of the situation in their mouths and what will happen at each step of the procedure. This not only helps patients recognize the problem and the importance of treatment, but it also takes away the uncertainty of what will happen during the procedure. Suddenly the inaccurate mental image of the dentist using a wrench to pull a tooth is replaced. Additionally, using illustrations instead of clinical photos helps patients see the steps of treatment without experiencing the "ick factor" that a person feels when viewing dental photos. Finally, a well-produced patient education system will include a reassuring narration that emphasizes steps such as anesthesia to help soothe patients' fears of pain.

Implementing your education system

In practices that have adopted video patient education systems, the process of using them wisely makes all the difference. While dentists are typically the ones who make a diagnosis and first inform patients of the recommended treatment, the hygienist is frequently the staff member responsible for providing patient education. Many hygienists develop closer relationships with patients simply due to the duration of time they have together at each appointment. As such, it can be helpful for hygienists to take on the responsibility of viewing the video with the patient and helping them understand the treatment recommendation.

I recently spoke with a hygienist who makes a habit of observing the patient as the video describing their recommended treatment plays. She told me that in most cases, she can actually see the patient relax while viewing the presentation. However, if she notes concern or fear on a patient's face, she pauses the video to ask the patient his or her thoughts. She is then able to immediately address any fears or misunderstandings, and then restart the video. This is a fantastic example of how a practice can combine both an automated patient education program with a staff member's personal touch to ensure that patients' fears are effectively addressed. Not only does this approach reduce anxiety, but it also increases case acceptance thanks to patients' vastly improved understanding of their diagnosis and what will happen during the procedure.

Although patient anxiety may never completely go away, the patient education tools we have on hand today are more effective than ever in alleviating stress and anxiety. With a well-implemented patient education system, practices can help patients better understand their diagnosis, reduce anxiety around treatment, and even lay the groundwork for future generations to have a more accurate perception of dentistry.

Education outside of the office

An additional benefit of patient education videos is they do not need to be confined to the dental office. With CAESY Cloud, for example, practices can post videos on their own websites or email them to patients. This allows a patient to view the video again in the comfort of their own home, where they can get input from another decision maker in the family, or simply review the procedure again to make sure they fully understand. This capability often proves especially helpful with postoperative instructions. On the day of a procedure, it can be difficult for patients to retain post-op instructions given verbally, but with an emailed video to help assist their recall, they can again feel reassurance that they have a resource waiting at home.

Fear of the dental office can unfortunately pass itself down through the generations, despite parents' attempts to hide their own fear while a child has a dental visit. Here again, the ability to watch a video presentation at home with a child can have great anxiety-reducing effects. For example, the CAESY presentation "Andy's First Visit" is designed to help kids understand each step of a visit to the dental office, preparing them for steps like water squirting in their mouths and a light shining on their face. By giving parents and kids the opportunity to watch this video together before a visit, practices can help lay a solid foundation for the child's experience with dentistry. Parents can also use the video to help educate their children without transmitting any of their own anxiety about the process.

Jana Berghoff, RDH, FAADOM, has managed a diverse selection of dental offices, including general/family, dental X-ray facilities, TMJ/facial pain clinics, and cosmetic. Seeing the need for experienced clinical staff in computer training, Jana became a trainer for Patterson Dental. After training close to 500 dental offices, she is now the technology marketing manager with Patterson Dental. Reach her at jana.berghoff@pattersondental.com.

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