Communication in the modern dental practice

Cheryl Hayes explains how technology can be used to help improve communication with patients

Effective communication is valuable in any business, and invaluable when dealing with members of the public. In a dental practice good communication can make the workplace more efficient and assist in team collaboration. Many dentists have well-honed technical skills, but by further developing their communication skills they can improve the patient’s experience in a number of ways.

A wealth of books have been written on effective communication among staff, and exactly what strategies you find best will be determined by a host of factors. It’s difficult to quantify the benefit of this to a practice, but by ensuring clear and efficient communication between staff, not only will things run more smoothly, the workplace will probably be the happier for it and likely be more welcoming to patients as a result.

Technology can facilitate improved communication between team members and between professional and patient. Systems such as inter-office messaging can enable staff to communicate seamlessly and discretely, avoiding the need to interrupt patient visits with queries for their practitioner.

Digital patient files, appointments, and calendars can be more easily synchronised, and information for referral treatment more easily shared. Technology also allows the team to correspond with patients through automated reminders.

Fear and anxiety

But technology alone cannot substitute for interpersonal skills. Dental fear and anxiety unfortunately remain a widespread phenomenon. In England, 35% of adults admit to feeling slightly or fairly anxious before treatment, while 15% express that they feel very or extremely anxious (NHS England, 2011).

While communication alone cannot be expected to solve this entirely, it is a truism that the more something is understood, the less frightening it becomes. Research backs this notion, but it is not simply a case of the more information the better – both the type of information given and the way it is delivered are important to how the patient responds.

There is of course some variation depending on the psychology of the patient, but generally speaking, providing a better understanding of procedures has been observed to significantly reduce patient anxiety (Kiyohara et al, 2004).

Dental fear drives a vicious cycle wherein individuals delay or avoid visiting their dentist, which naturally leads to dental problems becoming worse than they otherwise would be. This in turn leads to more invasive procedures being required when they do eventually visit, with these treatments likely causing more distress than earlier interventions would have.

This serves to further reinforce fear over dental visits, leading to a vicious cycle. Solving a phobia completely is likely outside of the dental practitioner’s remit, but by putting patients more at ease and educating them better on how to maintain their oral hygiene, they can help fewer people fall into this cycle (Armfieldet al, 2007).

Educating patients

Beyond fear, surveys reveal that patient recollection of dental health advice and agreed-upon actions following consultation is poor (Misra et al, 2013). This is concerning, as patients are obviously unlikely to follow advice and procedures they do not remember, which will consequently impact their oral health. Memory formation is a complex area of study, and there are numerous suggestions on how to improve recall, such as a more patient-led approach to discussion or providing notes.

Where possible, presenting information in a visual way may aid patient understanding and recollection. Research indicates that visual memory is considerably more robust than auditory. Moreover, complex visual information seems to be more easily and rapidly absorbed than can be achieved auditorily (Cohen et al, 2009; Lindner et al, 2009).

Recent developments in education indicate that multisensory learning (ie, receiving information through more than one sense simultaneously) produces a marked improvement in both learning and recognition (Seitz et al, 2006). By using visual aids in conjunction with an explanation, you can expect your patient to better understand and recall what you have said.

One potential technology that can help facilitate this is the CS 3600, the latest intraoral scanner from Carestream Dental, which can reconstruct 3D colour images of patients’ mouths. With your guidance, this imagery can be used to give the patient a better understanding of the unique condition of their own mouth, providing a view with which to assist their comprehension of what is being dealt with and how.

Finally, when thinking about communication, it can be all too easy to focus on how we express things. Patients feel more comfortable and confident in their dentist when they feel that they are being listened to (Sbaraini et al, 2012). A busy practice may deter a clinician from dedicating enough time to listen carefully, but satisfying this very human need is vital to any relationship, and will go a long way to achieving a productive and lasting one between dental practitioner and patient.


Armfield JM, Stewart JF, Spencer AJ (2007) The vicious cycle of dental fear: exploring the interplay between oral health service utilization and dental fear. BMC Oral Health 14(7): 1

Cohen MA, Horowitz TS, Wolfe JM (2009) Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(14): 6008-6010

Kiyohara LY, Kayano L, Oliveira LM, Yamamoto MU, Inagaki MM, Ogawa NY, Gonzales PESM, Mandelbaum R, Okubo ST, Watanuki T, Vieira JE (2004) Surgery information reduces anxiety in the pre-operative period. Revista do Hospital das Clinicas 59(2): 51-6

Lindner K, Blosser G, Cunigan K (2009) Visual versus auditory learning memory recall performance on short-term versus long-term tests. Modern Psychological Studies 15(1):39-46

Misra S, Daly B, Dunne S, Millar B, Packer M, Asimakopoulou K (2013) Dentist-patient communication: what do patients and dentists remember following a consultation? Implications for patient compliance. Patient Preference and Adherence 7: 543-9

NHS England (2011) Adult dental health survey 2009 – England key findings

Sbaraini A, Carter SM, Evans RW, Blinkhorn A (2012) Experiences of dental care: what do patients value? BMC Health Services Research 12: 177

Seitz AR, Kim R, Shams L (2006) Sound facilitates visual learning. Current Biology. 16(14): 1422-7

For more information, contact Carestream Dental on 0800 169 9692 or visit

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