Dental Career

How to Navigate the Emotionally Charged Dental Environment

Dental Career

How to Navigate the Emotionally Charged Dental Environment

Dental school leaves new graduates unprepared for some aspects of life as a dentist. One aspect many dentists are not prepared for is how emotionally charged a dental office environment can be. From patient anxiety to team dynamics, conflict management in dental practices takes skill. Even the most seasoned dental professional may need to hone their emotional intelligence to create an office culture that keeps staff working at their peak and patients feeling their most comfortable.

Dentist As Counsellor: Helping Your Patients Navigate Negative Emotions

Dental fear ranks second only to fear of heights on most surveys in the US. Patients struggling with dental fear or phobias, or even just run-of-the-mill anxiety may let their emotions manifest in unpleasant ways. They may be rude or surly to you or your staff to mask their fear. They may cancel or postpone treatment or even no-show for appointments. And who hasn’t had a patient sit down and immediately say, “I hate the dentist?”

Dental fear also lowers your patient’s pain tolerance and increases their reactivity to discomfort. This means more flinching and wiggling in the chair, or overreactions to sensations you may see as negligible. Helping your patients navigate their negative emotions at the dentist is key to conflict management in dental practices.

Investing in Your Patient’s Emotions Will Make You a Better Dentist

The ability to help patients navigate their emotions can make or break a dental practice. Dentists with compassion and empathy will see better patient compliance and more consistent treatment plan acceptance.

Not only is that a great investment in your patients’ health; it will also make your practice more profitable.

Rather than seeing patients as “difficult,” try to reorient your perception of their behaviors. Most of the time, a difficult patient is just scared. Help your patients navigate their very powerful emotions through dental anxiety management. This will not only make their appointments smoother, but over time, you will gain your patients’ trust. That means they will be more likely to honor their appointments and become easier in the chair. That’s a win for your patients’ health, and for your stress level. 

One of the main sources of anxiety and hostility for patients is feeling like they have no control over their situation. As much as possible, try to hand some control back to your patient. This may mean handing the suction to the patient while they’re getting polished so they can spit whenever they want. It may mean taking a moment to sit your patient upright and make sure they understand your diagnosis fully, spelling out all of their treatment options and which you feel will serve them best. Overall, diffusing difficult patient emotions usually comes down to communication. When your patient feels heard, and when they truly understand what you’re saying, they will feel more involved in their care and less fearful of your plan.

Pediatric Patients Mean More Emotions In Your Operatory

If you run a family practice or see pediatric patients, your ability to navigate emotions becomes even more essential. Children tend to be slow to warm up in any medical environment.

Many kids also grow up hearing about the dentist almost as a threat. “If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get a cavity! Then the dentist will have to give you a shot and use a drill.”

Obviously many kids will be overwhelmed by all the new smells and sounds, and may have trouble keeping still in the chair. If a parent joins them in the room, you can have double trouble. Many parents project their own history of negative dental experiences onto their children and may have a lot of anxiety just watching their kids get a cleaning.

In addition to offering fidget toys or stress balls to the kids, sunglasses to keep the light out of their eyes, and maybe even a TV near the chair so they can watch some cartoons while you work, you can help make pediatric patients more manageable by taking the time to bond with them when you first meet. Establishing a rapport with your pediatric patients and their parents is an investment in that child’s oral health throughout their lifetime.

Community Dental Partners is here to support you as you learn to navigate even the most challenging patients. Including kids! Dr. Lindsay Cua has had a great experience growing in her skill with patient management. “I have access to a lot of mentors who can help me – especially pediatric treatment planning,” she says. “When I graduated, I had limited experience with pediatric patients, but since being here, I’ve been given the opportunity and support I need to take it to the next level.”

Dentist As Team Leader: Guiding Your Staff Through Their Emotions

A major factor in creating patient comfort is providing a soothing environment. If your team experiences ongoing friction, your patients will feel that stress as soon as they walk in the door. Patients who may already be struggling with fear or stress related to the idea of dental treatment will feed off the stress of your staff.

Educating your clinicians and support staff in effective patient management also means leading them in practicing compassion. From your hygienists to your treatment coordinators, every member of your team must help your patients feel safe and at ease.

Maintaining a great office atmosphere means hiring staff with the right attitude and fostering an enriching work environment. Team members must feel heard, and their opinions must be valued so that they feel invested in the practice.

Most Americans working full time spend more hours per week with their coworkers than with their family. When tempers flare, as they are bound to do even in the most peaceful workplace, a great dentist must also become a moderator and peacekeeper. CDP believes building the right culture is the cornerstone of running an effective dental office. Team loyalty and mutual respect, compassion, and gratitude are three of the nine pillars we seek to foster in all of our practices. Through these pillars, your team will have the foundation to navigate challenges with ease.

Dentist As Human: Navigating Your Own Emotions

There is one last piece of the puzzle to create a great office environment: you! As the practice leader, you are the one to keep the emotional temperature of your office balanced. However, keeping your own emotions in check can also be a challenge. Learning about conflict management in dental practices is a great place to start.

Keep a Cool Head When Managing Conflict in Your Dental Practice

Helping keep your patients calm and your team working smoothly sounds like a tall order. Especially when it feels like those patients and team members are doing everything in their power to make you lose your cool. It’s tempting to fly off the handle when you’ve had a day of difficult patients, cancelled appointments, and now you just found a deep crack in what was supposed to be a simple crown prep.

Before you chuck your drill across the room, take a moment. It may sound cheesy, but a few slow breaths and a minute or two to assess your situation and calmly address it will benefit you immensely. If you’ve taken the time to invest in that relationship with your patient and help them navigate their negative emotions, you have their trust. Speaking candidly while remaining professional and upholding the practice brand when things go wrong and creating a plan together for how to address those problems not only protects their autonomy, but it also reinforces your culture of care.

Practice Calm Leadership and Professional Communication

As you read above, you will likely spend more time with your dental office team than your own family. And those team members may bring their own outside baggage into work with them. They will make mistakes. They’ll need your guidance for how you want them to treat patients, and how you want the office to run.

Note that corrections need to be made privately, and never in front of patients. Berating an assistant for their mistake makes them feel terrible, and can shake your patient’s faith in your team’s abilities.

This is fundamental to conflict management in dental practices. Your patients must trust you, your team, and your work. Using calm, professional communication at the appropriate time and in the right environment is key.

Work-Life Guilt

For those new to the field or who have never worked in the dental industry, there is a misconception that dentists work minimal hours and make tons of money. For most dentists, this is not the case. You will have to be available to your patients when they have an emergency, and you may spend sleepless nights fretting about a difficult case. You may stress about paying back your student loans or covering overhead and payroll.

Dentists carry not only the stress of a medical professional, but also the burden of running a business. That can mean long hours away from your family, missing important events, and navigating some very tough feelings of guilt and frustration. 

Finding work-life balance is key to career longevity in the dental field. Fortunately, CDP is here to help. With an emphasis on physical, spiritual, and emotional development, we allow our clinicians to find greater health through balance. Schedule a call with our recruiting team to discuss how we can foster your path to a long and rewarding career of changing lives through excellent care.

Dr. Craig Copeland
Dr. Craig Copeland Chief Dental Officer Community Dental Partners

A graduate of Brigham Young University’s Business Finance department and the University of Florida’s College of Dentistry, Dr. Craig Copeland, DMD first joined Community Dental Partners (CDP) in 2010, after co-founder Dr. Chad Evans invited him to an interview.

He instantly fell in love with CDP’s mission to elevate dentistry, make great dental care accessible, and provide unique and amazing experiences for underserved communities. The organization’s culture aligned with his own beliefs and he knew that CDP would offer him the ideal environment in which to grow.

Today, Dr. Copeland is the Chief Dental Officer of Community Dental Partners and focuses on helping CDP’s doctors exceed in their careers, through mentorship, training, and strengthening CDP’s support systems.

Dr. Copeland lives in Texas with his family: his wife and four children. He’s an avid sports fan, and supporting his children in their activities, such as basketball, gymnastics, and soccer, keeps him busy. He also likes to travel to new places with his family whenever he can.

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