Empathy is defined as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.” For dentists, empathizing with patients is not only good practice. According to the September 2014 issue of the New Zealand Dental Journal, dentists who empathize with their patients enjoy higher rates of case acceptance and patient satisfaction.
We can start practicing empathy by putting ourselves in our patients’ shoes. Some come into our offices only when something is wrong. Potentially they have to miss work and hire a babysitter for the appointment. They might have to take public transportation to your location. Most likely, they’ll have to wait, and if they didn’t schedule an appointment in advance, it could be hours. They may have no idea what needs to be done, and they’re concerned that whatever treatment is rendered could cost a lot, could hurt, could inconvenience them further. If any tests are conducted, they may have to keep anxiety at bay for days, and sometimes weeks, while they wait for results. They may suffer through this situation alone, since they don’t want to alarm their family members.
While this scenario may not be the case for everyone, it is for some. How will you treat them? The first step is to validate your patients’ experiences. If they are complaining about pain, be passionate about finding its source. Learn more about how they got there and why they’re in your practice now. Make sure each patient feels cared for — not dismissed.
Also, patients can be anxious. Sometimes, a dental appointment comes with unknown territory, and when patients are nervous, waiting is more than an inconvenience. Imaginations can flourish, and the extra time to focus on the source of the anxiety only exacerbates it. Try to keep to your schedule, and if you need to keep patients waiting, at least let them know personally, so that they are aware that your tardiness is not due to a lack of respect for them.
When possible, familiarize yourself with your patients’ histories before they arrive. Remember that it’s more important for you to know your patient than for your patient to know you. In hospitals, patients are asked their name and birth date before every fleeting conversation with every health care professional, but that doesn’t necessarily instill any confidence. A smile on the practitioner’s face and a soothing word will go far. Your patients need to know you mean more to them than a chart number and a procedure code.
Understand that no matter how simple a procedure may seem to you, your patient might be legitimately terrified, so fully explain their condition and what you plan to do about it in a way that’s easy to grasp. Each patient deserves to be included in the diagnostic and treatment planning process. It might seem overboard to explain a dental prophylaxis to an adult or to have to consider the anxiety level of a patient undergoing such a procedure, but from the patient’s perspective, all new procedures can be fraught with unknown dangers and threats.
Finally, make your patient feel like a valued member of your practice. Your patients entrust you with their problems. They need information, guidance and treatment. You may not be able to identify the source of every single issue, but remember that in choosing to be a health care professional, you committed to caring for people. Practicing empathy will help you achieve this.
~Drs. Ivy Peltz and Eric Studley