Dental students learn early on that they must learn to manage all forms of dental anxiety in their patients. While reassurance and a friendly smile can go a long way, effective communication is essential to helping patients feel comfortable in potentially stressful situations. In fact, many of us have already began working on these important skills before dental school, sometimes without even realizing it. I believe that the best way to maximize the development of your interpersonal skills is to immerse yourself in activities that require you to constantly interact with people, such as part-time employment.
Working is not only a great way to generate extra income, but also another opportunity to connect with your community. In college, I worked for Apple, a company that’s been rated number one in Computer Technical Support by Consumer Reports for the past nine years. Because my interactions with customers were primarily by phone, I was trained extensively for two months on effective communication.
One of the most important lessons I learned was the importance of empathy in communicating with customers who were often already upset, scared or frustrated before our conversation even began. I quickly learned to adjust my approach based on their emotions and tone, as well as aid in their understanding by explaining things in terms they would understand. During each call, I would also make sure to note little things they said about their family, vacations or jobs. Mentioning these notes again at the end of the call helped me show the customer that I was paying attention and that they were valued.
These practices can be easily applied to the patient-provider relationship. Making note of the details in your patients’ lives and taking cues from their body language can not only make your future patients feel more comfortable, but also help you become a better provider. Strong communication skills can also vastly improve the effectiveness of patient education, especially when it comes to discussing the pros and cons of various treatment options.
Conversely, being in a position that requires extensive customer interaction can also be stressful in its own way. Facing potentially unhappy customers on a daily basis is emotionally tiring, and similarly, facing unhappy patients can wear you down in a similar way without the right mindset to face these interactions.
However, because you will be responsible for the health of your patients, I believe that it is important to start building the emotional resilience to be able to give them your best effort, even on the worst of days. As an undergraduate, I also had an opportunity to work part-time at a movie theatre, where angry customers would occasionally verbally take out their frustrations on me. It may not have been fair, but I chose not to take their attitude towards me too personally. I still did my best to meet their needs with a smile on my face and I never let the attitude of one customer affect how I treated the next. This job helped me better understand that clientele are key to the success of any business.
As a dentist, I know that patients may not always be happy with my best efforts, but I’ve found that focusing on staying calm in these emotional situations is essential to defusing the conflict and preventing its escalation. When I am finally able treat patients of my own, I know I can not only work towards a beneficial solution for the customer, but also expand upon the skills I’ve gained from the workplace environment.
Holding a job while trying to balance a rigorous academic load can be difficult, but I believe that predental students who are able to work a job alongside their studies are able to reap more benefits than meets the eye. Successful communication is essential in improving the oral health of your patients, and working customer service jobs can help you strengthen the communication skills that you may not learn in school. You learn to understand people, to be kind even when a patient is not, to multitask, to speak eloquently and most importantly, to relate to people.
Have you had a job in the past that makes you a better dentist? Let us know about it in the comments!
~ Megan Grace, predental