How to Address Dental Anxieties During the Pandemic

Gina Liggio Maestri, DDS

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According to the ADA, 22% of adults admit to being afraid of the dentist. Dental anxieties develop for many reasons, including traumatic dental experiences, parental fears superimposed upon you during childhood, or even something as simple as a dentist who came across as cold in manner. Regardless of where the fear stems from, dental anxieties are very real and can have a drastic impact in overall oral health.

Adding a worldwide pandemic to an already growing population of people who fear dental care will require dentists to adjust their practice. COVID-19, in a very short time, has changed the way the world interacts with one another entirely. Although we see the light at the end of the tunnel and parts of society are beginning to open back up, social distancing will likely become part of our new normal. Individuals and businesses alike will continue to take precautions long after COVID-19 is gone, particularly those in the medical industry.

Dental offices are now allowed to see patients beyond emergency dental situations but are following strict guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Facilities can expect to pre-screen patients for some time to come.

Screenings include but are not limited to temperature checks, a consent form stating they have no symptoms such as cough or runny nose, and questions regarding any travel in the previous two weeks as well as the health of family members. It is also recommended that practices prevent visitors from entering the waiting area and maintaining an appropriate distance between patients there.

What Can Be Done to Ease Dental Anxiety?

Combating dental anxieties post-pandemic may be a bit more complex than managing dental fears in the past. Prior to COVID-19, dental fears, although valid and real to the patient, weren’t always realistic and could be addressed with simple strategies including positive reinforcement, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, or even sedation dentistry if necessary.

After COVID-19, these methods will still hold value, but a new approach also must be incorporated to help bring peace to the racing minds of nervous patients. COVID-19 is a disease spread by breathing that awakens unique fears in those who may not have previously been afraid of going to the dentist. It will likely be a long road to normalcy, and the fear of getting sick will linger. Here are some proactive tips you can adopt at your practice.

Communication

A little conversation can go a long way in the world of anxiety. In the months following your facility’s reopening, have your staff send out a consistent message to all scheduled patients letting them know exactly what precautions you are taking. Everything from facility sanitation to pre-entry screenings and employee guidelines should be discussed prior to their visit. Transparency and over-communication for patients who show signs of nervousness and fear will help them feel safer and take the edge off their anxiety.

Communication is also a strong technique despite COVID-19. Taking the time to both listen and talk through a patient’s fears and concerns alone will help them relax. A dentist’s job not only is  to provide oral health but also to make patients feel comfortable and be a strong communicator. Encourage patients to ask questions, and do your best to explain verbally and visually each step of their visit as you proceed.

Ongoing Training

As with any business that has client, customer, or patient interactions, your organizational culture directly correlates with the end consumer’s overall experience. You are responsible for creating a culture within your practice that trickles down all the way to your patients.

Implementing training programs or frequent safety meetings with your staff members can drastically boost their confidence when dealing with a patient who has dental anxiety. Take the time to implement procedures that specifically address dental fears. For example, allowing the patient to dictate start and stop times throughout a cleaning or procedure is a simple policy that can give the patient some control, easing their anxiety.

Training sessions can focus on how to adjust the environment for anxious patients. Music, television, aromas, lighting, distractions, and everything else they see, hear, or smell have a direct impact on your patients’ mental state.

Also, scripting can be implemented for all patients, not just anxious ones. For example, saying “Let me know when you are ready” comes across much differently from “Open wide!”

Breathing and relaxation techniques, guided Imagery, and identifying anxious patients (since most patients won’t flat-out tell you they have dental fears) are appropriate topics for training as well.

Guidelines

Specific to COVID-19, following CDC guidelines and ensuring you have proper equipment and procedures in place will cultivate an environment of confidence and safety for your staff. Anxious staff members increase anxiety in patients, particularly ones with existing dental fears.

There are new risks in the dental industry that did not exist before, and uncertainty is a gateway for fear. Make it known verbally and by your actions that keeping your staff and patients safe is your number one priority. Removing fear from your own atmosphere will work wonders in reducing the fears of your patients.

Summary

Dental professionals may have lots of experience with nervous patients, but they must be willing to adapt their methods for combating fear to the changing times. Picking up on social cues and being proactive about making patients and staff feel safe should now be at the forefront of your practice.

Stay informed about new procedures and guidelines, follow them strictly, and be willing to expand upon those guidelines to suit your own practice’s needs. Implement training for staff members to address dental fears, and be willing to go above and beyond in communication with patients and your community.

Dr. Liggio Maestri obtained her DDS from the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry, where she also received several awards for outstanding academic performance in general and cosmetic dentistry. She also earns at least 300 hours of continuing education each year, which is four times the number required by the state. She has completed advanced training in cosmetic and implant dentistry as well. Her affiliations include a mini-residency in restorative implant dentistry, safe administration of Botox through the American Academy of Facial Esthetics, and adult orthodontics including comprehensive treatments and clear aligner therapy. An Invisalign Provider as well, she now practices in Lafayette, Louisiana.

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