How to make a patient feel comfortable, safe, and cared for – in the first 90 seconds

Fear of the dentist is more common than you might think. In fact, It’s estimated that 75% of adults in the US have at least a low level of fear about visiting the dentist, and up to 20% of adults actually AVOID going to the dentist completely due to dental phobia.


Chances are you’ve had patients in your own chair who weren’t exactly thrilled to be there. And a patient won’t necessarily remember a positive experience, but they will definitely remember a negative one. And a negative enough experience might discourage them from returning. 


Since first impressions are such a huge part of what we remember from any experience, the first 90 seconds of a patient’s appointment are often the most important. So, there’s a huge opportunity for you as the dental assistant to create a great lasting impression, by making the patient feel immediately at ease and safe.


Maybe you already have a natural ability to make people feel at ease. Or maybe you’re hoping to get better at it. Either way, learning a few tips to make the patient feel comfortable, safe, and cared for, could be what really makes you stand out in your role.


Here are a few ways to do that with each patient!


Introduce yourself, and establish a ‘stop signal’


This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s too important to skip. Your patient should always know the name of the assistant taking care of them. 


For example, I always lead with, “My name is Michelle, and I’ll be taking care of you today. If you need ANYTHING at all, please let me know!” And I always let them know how they can get my attention throughout the procedure. For instance, I tell them that if they need me to stop at any point during the procedure, they can raise their left hand. That’s our ‘stop signal’ or how we communicate during treatment if at any time they need to use the restroom, need suction or are just feeling uncomfortable.


Be proactive about agreeing on a signal at the beginning of the appointment, and this will allow for a much smoother appointment.


Learn their dental history


A patient may feel reluctant to volunteer too much information about their dental history, such as a recent negative dentist experience or simply a gum problem affecting subsequent procedures. They may think these things are unimportant to the appointment, when in fact, knowledge about these sensitivities can help a dental assistant tailor the experience to make it as painless as possible. 


A great dental assistant starts the appointment with a few questions about the patient’s history, whether it’s related to their mental or physical associations with the dentist’s office. By creating a space for the patient to open up, you’re ensuring them not only that they are heard and respected, but also that their treatment will honor and account for any previous dental concerns.


Always lead with this truth: Patients are people, too


Every patient is different, and therefore seeks a different kind of relationship with their dental assistant. Some patients will feel much more reassured when they have a trusting relationship with their assistant. If your patient seems eager to offer information about their personal life – their kids, their drive to work – listen, ask questions, and maybe even share some information about yours.


When they come for a second visit, try to remember details to show them that you value them as people beyond the dentists chair. Likewise, feel free to update them, building the assistant-patient relationship as they come for more and more appointments.


Then again, some patients just come for their procedure, and aren’t here for the small talk. After the first 90 seconds, you’ll definitely be able to gauge how personal your relationship will be.


Ask if they’d be more comfortable if you talk them through what you’re doing


Many people fear the dentist’s office because they don’t know what to expect: how they will be treated, what the procedure will feel like, what tools will be used, how long the appointment will last…


That fear is heightened with a cold, silent, and awkward treatment room. 


If you start each appointment with a full walkthrough, explaining exactly what you plan to do and how it will feel, you’re likely to ease the nerves of your patient to eliminate any twitching or jolting that could affect the procedure. By allowing the patient to ask questions, you can once again make them feel heard, and therefore increase their confidence as the procedure begins.


But it’s important to clarify upfront if they’d want you to walk them through each step. Some patients love to know what is going on, some patients just want to know where you are in treatment and when you are about to be finished, and some patients don’t want to know anything at all…even small details might freak them out.


To make them even more comfortable, if a patient does have dental anxiety, ask them if there’s anything specific that happened in the past to cause the unease. This way, you can ensure that it doesn’t happen to them again. 


Remember: You are the patient’s advocate and can communicate any important information to the dentist to ensure an amazing experience to keep them coming back to your office.


Leave a great last impression, too