Can Your Clinic’s Environment Reduce Patient Anxiety and Stress?

Amruta Patel, DDS
Photo courtesy of the Tooth Station.


Photo courtesy of the Tooth Station.

Despite modern advances in painless dentistry, patient anxiety continues to be an ongoing concern in the dental environment today. Many people associate the sight, smell, and sound of a dental clinic with the pain (or perceived pain) of treatments they’ve had in the past. The trouble is that this fear and anxiety can affect their commitment to proper dental care.

What can you do to help patients overcome their fear and anxiety, or dentophobia? First, understand what causes stress in patients. Changing the design or environment in your clinic can help too by reducing the stress triggers that make patients feel anxious, embarrassed, helpless, or afraid before a dental care procedure.

What Causes Anxiety and Stress?

There’s no conclusive research that has pinpointed the cause of dental anxiety and stress, but some studies suggest that a past bad experience or painful treatment is one of the most common causes. Other factors include the possibility of pain during a procedure, the ineffectiveness of anesthesia, the sterile clinical smell, and the sound of the dental drill.

For some patients, anxiety and stress may be related to the way they are treated by the clinic’s staff. For instance, they may feel that the dentists or technicians are not taking enough time to answer their questions and set their concerns to rest, or that they may have to wait all day for the treatment to be completed.

It may not seem like such a big deal on the surface, but dental anxiety can cause patients to neglect their oral care checkups or put off treatment for any problems that they already face. Over time, small dental issues can become much worse, leading to the need for more serious (and possibly uncomfortable) treatment down the line.

Reducing Anxiety and Stress

Try making some of these changes at your dental clinic to reduce anxiety, stress, and fear in patients:

  • The way it smells: There is a distinctive odor associated with hospitals, clinics, and other sterile spaces that triggers an emotional response in many visitors. Using relaxing scents like lavender and orange in the clinic and waiting rooms can help put patients at ease before dental treatment.
  • The way it looks: The use of soothing colors like blue and green on walls, seating, and furnishings can help create a more comfortable dental environment for patients. Bare walls can also cause patients to feel anxious, so it’s a good idea to decorate them with cheerful artwork and décor.
  • The way it sounds: One of the most common stress triggers for dental patients is the sound of the drill, so focus on reducing the noise of dental machinery as much as you can. Place compressors and other noisy equipment in a separate area, and play light and soothing background music.
  • The way it’s lit: Dental clinics need bright, task-oriented lighting for dentists to see what they’re doing, but lights shining directly on a patient’s face will trigger stress and anxiety. Position the lights so they point at the mouth instead of the eyes, and keep the background lights dim.
  • The way it feels: The furniture in waiting rooms and operating areas alike should be clean, comfortable, and inviting. In addition, a lower temperature setting may also help with reducing stress and anxiety. You can also offer blankets to patients if they seem anxious or uncomfortable.

Consider adding TV screens, aquariums, and other interesting elements around the clinic so patients have something to focus on while their treatment is taking place.

Other Techniques

In addition to the clinic’s environment, some other helpful steps you can take to reduce patient anxiety include:

  • Communication: Maintain clear communication with patients from the time they book an appointment to during and even after their treatment. Be clear about what they can expect (eg, some discomfort during local anesthesia), answer questions without impatience, and follow up with them during their recovery.
  • Control: People naturally feel more at ease in situations where they feel a sense of control. Set up a signal (like raising a hand) when they need a break during treatment, and honor that signal instead of rushing them. Let them choose movies or videos to watch, music in the background, or other entertaining distractions.
  • Aftercare: This is one of the simplest ways to alleviate patient discomfort, because it shows that you’re willing to make an extra effort. Keep ice cream on hand for patients who’ve come in for an extraction, or pain medication for those who are getting extensive dental treatment.

Patients who have to wait for their treatment are likely to be more anxious and stressed, so make sure that your dental clinic runs efficiently as well!

Amruta Patel, DDS, is a warm and compassionate dentist caring for the community of San Antonio, TX. She attended Marquette University, where she received both her dental degree and her bachelor’s degree. She practices at All About Smiles, where she provides cosmetic braces, endodontic treatments, implants, and veneers, as well as basic general dental services. During her consultations, Dr. Patel fully explains patients’ conditions and helps them choose an appropriate treatment plan. Outside of practicing dentistry, Dr. Patel enjoys spending time with her husband and two dogs. 

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