The professional relationship between the dentist and patient is a close one.
Firstly there is the issue of invading each other’s personal space. Quite clearly the dentist must get physically close to the patient in order to undertake treatment. As this is the facial area, many find this more intimidating than other areas of their body. It is impossible (unless the patient closes their eyes) of avoiding looking at the dentist.
Secondly, there is the fear of pain. Nowadays dentistry should be pain-free but injections – even with the most sophisticated techniques – can still cause a sting. Pressure is also inevitable and many perceive this as pain because they are expecting it to hurt. We have many years of bad press to blame.
Drills and machinery within the surgery make a noise and is known to heighten the patient’s reactions. We are programmed to respond to unusual noises and sounds with fear and hesitation.
Yet even with these hurdles, it is not unusual for the dentist to be the person to whom the patient unloads their external pressures. As a dental student, a long-standing patient of mine arrived for a routine appointment looking very upset. It transpired that her 29-year-old GP daughter had committed suicide that morning. After settling her down, I asked why she had come today, she replied that she had come as she felt she had to tell me because I could help her with her grief – obviously I did my best and listened for a couple of hours, but my experience was very limited as a 22-year-old that had never suffered a traumatic loss. For a long time afterwards I questioned why I was the first point of call and I came to the conclusion that dentists are in the privilidged position of a closeness to their patients due to the trust that must be present for the patient to consent to treatment.
A recent survey found that patients are concerned about a lack of communication with their dentist. This surely is self explanatory, situations are not as fearful when you understand what is going on and why. Patients will stay loyal to a dentist who they have seen for many years even though the dentist may be guilty of neglect. Take for example the young dentist who takes over an established list of a retiring colleague only to find mouthfuls of dental work required. Upon telling the patients this news he is met with, “ Oh Mr So-and-So was so gentle and wonderful, he never hurt me or told me I needed lots of expensive treatment”.
To summarise, the rapport built up between the dentist and their patient is still essential to providing top quality dental care in today’s sophisticated dental market.