patient communication
Management + Leadership

Analogies as an analgesic: Making painful conversations more comfortable

An analogy takes an unfamiliar concept in our world and compares it to something familiar. What are some ways we can use this to make dentistry more understandable for our patients? Can using analogies play an important role in achieving this goal?

A good dentist understands complex dental terminology and concepts in order to provide effective clinical care. A great dentist, however, can help their patients understand the importance of dental concepts in order to achieve treatment goals. Analogies are a communication technique that can be used to do this.

Patients encounter a lot of concepts and treatment plan options that are foreign to them, but if we challenge ourselves to strengthen our analogical instincts, or our ability to see likeness in things that are seemingly unalike, we have the capacity to shape how our patients respond to challenges and opportunities. We can increase case acceptance and improve patient experience using analogies to shape our patients’ relationship with dental information. We want these relationships to be friendly and approachable, instead of complicated or filled with fear.

As we all know, there are some forms of treatment that make patients cringe at the thought of them, so it is up to us to alleviate their concerns. Below are a few examples of how analogies can be used to discuss treatments and diagnostic tools that may confuse the everyday patient.

Scaling and root planing (SRP)

We must ensure our patients, especially those with active periodontal disease, understand the difference between a prophy and SRP. To help bridge the gap (minor pun intended) for patients who may not understand their need for an SRP, inform them that their state of disease is causing deeper pocketing in their gums than they realize. As such, you could say: “Completing an ordinary cleaning on periodontally involved teeth such as yours would be like only washing the top layer of clothes in a constantly full laundry basket; all the other layers of clothes would never get cleaned.”

This analogy demonstrates that their periodontal issue would not be fully addressed if inadequate treatment was rendered.  

Dentures

Making the transition into removable dentures presents challenges for both the patient and the dentist. It is imperative to continuously set and reinforce patient expectations before, during and after denture delivery to guide the patient to a satisfactory outcome. If patients believe they will be able to eat and function exactly as they did when they had their natural teeth, you are likely to be on shaky ground with respect to outcome expectations.

Analogies can be used to help guide patient expectations in a manner that is friendly and non-threatening. For instance, you could say: “Chewing is like running a marathon. Doing it with your natural teeth is like wearing running shoes. With dentures, it’s like wearing flip-flops.”

Using this language, a patient can guess that natural teeth have a “competitive advantage” and are inherently better. They also can deduce that dentures, like flip-flops, are not as stable and have many limitations.

Radiographs

There are many articles out there that raise concerns about the association between dental X-rays and cancer. And you can bet that your patients have done their fair share of internet searching about it. It is your job to alleviate their fears and address their concerns.

Use analogies to frame their perspective by saying: “The amount of radiation exposure you receive from this dental X-ray is equivalent to one grain of sand in a sandbox. The rest of the sand represents the natural background radiation we all receive on a daily basis.” In this case, it is important to acknowledge their concerns respectfully and discuss risks and benefits, but also put the risks into perspective.

Analogies bridge the knowledge gap for patients, help set expectations, alleviate fears and make dentistry more user-friendly. These are just a few examples that can be used to address common concerns that patients have pertaining to specific procedures and treatment strategies. Bolster your analogical instincts to improve your patients’ experiences and make difficult conversations more personable.

~Rachel Bryant, Midwestern-Arizona ’21, Chapter President

Rachel Bryant

Rachel Bryant is a current third-year dental student at Midwestern University – Arizona. She serves as ASDA chapter president this year and is passionate about fostering professional and personal growth through organized dentistry, advocacy, community service and leadership.

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