The Power of a Smile: How Empathy Can Transform Your DSO, Dental Group, or Practice

Written by Kelly Tanner, Ph.D., RDH

Improving your empathy can help improve patient outcomes, increase trust between the dentist and the patient, and ultimately lead to a more successful practice. Here are some ways to build empathy in your DSO, dental group, or practice:

Listen actively.

Active listening is an essential skill for any healthcare provider. When patients feel like they are being heard, they are more likely to trust the dental team and feel more comfortable during their visit. The team member can actively listen by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and asking follow-up questions to ensure they understand the patient’s concerns. By implementing these techniques, you can improve your active listening skills and provide personalized care that meets patients’ needs.

Dental professionals can improve active listening during a dental visit by:

  • Provide undivided attention: Give patients full attention by avoiding distractions such as phones, computers, or other interruptions.
  • Use nonverbal cues: Use eye contact, nodding, and other nonverbal cues to show patients you are actively listening and engaging in the conversation.
  • Ask open-ended questions: Asking open-ended questions can help patients share more information about their concerns and provide a better understanding of their needs.
  • Paraphrase: Summarize what the patient has said to make sure that you fully understand their concerns and that they feel heard.
  • Avoid interrupting: Interrupting patients while speaking can be frustrating and make them feel unheard. Allow patients to express their concerns fully before responding.
  • Validate: Acknowledge and validate patients’ feelings and concerns. Even if you can’t solve their problem, simply showing understanding and empathy can go a long way in building trust.
  • Be patient: Refrain from rushing patients through their concerns or cutting them off mid-sentence. Take the time to understand what they are trying to communicate fully.

Show compassion.

The dental team should always approach their patients with kindness and compassion. Patients may be going through difficult situations, such as dental pain or financial struggles, and showing empathy toward them can help them feel seen and heard.

  • Offer pain management options, such as numbing agents or relaxation techniques, to help ease anxiety and discomfort.
  • Check-in with patients regularly during procedures to ensure they are comfortable and ask if they need a break.
  • Follow up with patients after procedures to make sure they are recovering well and address any concerns they may have.
  • Provide a calm and peaceful environment with relaxing music, aromatherapy, or other amenities to help put patients at ease.
  • Treat each patient with unique needs and concerns and tailor care accordingly.

Use technology to improve the patient experience.

Technology can play a significant role in improving the patient experience and building empathy in dentistry. Virtual consultations, patient portals, and online appointment booking can help make the process more convenient and less stressful for patients. In addition, clinical advancements are available to improve the patient experience, such as:

  • Digital photographs to help patients understand the conditions in the mouth and see what YOU are seeing.
  • Electronic dental anesthesia helps with comfort during periodontal probing and dental care procedures.
  • 3D digital health scanning shows the patient conditions in their mouth that change over time and also shows patients simulated outcomes.
  • AI-assisted radiology detection detects areas of disease earlier, communicates findings to patients, and more accurately promotes minimally invasive dentistry.

Explain procedures in detail.

Using simple language to explain the procedure in detail can help alleviate fears and build trust. Explaining the details of procedures to patients can improve empathy between dental professionals and patients in the following ways:

  • Building Trust: When we take the time to explain the details of procedures to patients, it helps establish trust. Patients feel more comfortable and confident in the treatment process when they understand what will be done and why.
  • Reducing Anxiety: Dental procedures can often cause anxiety and fear in patients. By explaining the procedure step-by-step, dental professionals can alleviate anxiety by addressing patients’ concerns and providing reassurance.
  • Empowering Patients: Providing detailed explanations empowers patients to make informed decisions about their oral health. When patients clearly understand their treatment options and reasoning, they feel more involved in decision-making, leading to increased satisfaction and trust in their dental professional.
  • Addressing Individual Needs: Each patient has unique needs and expectations. A personalized approach fosters empathy and shows patients that their dental professional understands and respects their needs.
  • Enhancing Treatment Outcomes: When patients clearly understand the details of a procedure, they are more likely to comply with post-treatment care instructions, leading to improved treatment outcomes.

Be aware of body language.

Body language can speak volumes about how a patient is feeling. Awareness of body language and facial expressions can help dental professionals adjust their approach and create a more comfortable environment for the patient. Every patient is unique, and dental professionals should adapt their approach based on individual preferences and needs. Here are some ways awareness can enhance the patient-dentist relationship:

  • Non-verbal cues: By observing patients’ non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, posture, and gestures, dental professionals can gain insights into patient emotions and level of comfort. This awareness allows the provider to adjust their approach and provide a more empathetic response.
  • Establishing rapport: Paying attention to body language helps establish a connection with patients. Making eye contact, nodding, and using open and welcoming body language can create a trusting and comfortable environment, enabling patients to express their concerns more openly.
  • Understanding anxiety and fear: Dental visits can induce anxiety and fear in many patients. Recognizing nervousness or discomfort through body language allows dental professionals to address these emotions effectively. The team member can provide additional support, reassurance, and techniques to alleviate anxiety.
  • Tailoring communication: Body language provides valuable cues about a patient’s preferred communication style. Some patients may respond better to a gentle touch or a reassuring hand on the shoulder, while others may prefer more personal space. Attention to these signals helps dental professionals tailor their communication to individual needs.
  • Enhancing active listening: Body language complements verbal communication and provides context to patients’ words. It helps dental professionals better understand patients’ emotions, concerns, and needs.

Follow up with patients.

Following up with patients after a procedure shows that the dental team cares about the patient’s well-being beyond the chair. Following up with patients can significantly improve empathy between dental professionals and their patients. Here is a list of how patient follow-up enhances empathy:

  • Demonstrates Care and Concern: Following up with patients shows that dental professionals genuinely care about their well-being and are invested in their oral health journey.
  • Builds Trust: Follow-up after a procedure creates a sense of trust and reliability. Patients feel reassured knowing that their dental professional is monitoring their progress and addressing any concerns or issues that may arise.
  • Enhances Communication: Follow-up calls or appointments allow dental professionals to actively listen to patients, understand their experiences, and address any questions or doubts.
  • Personalized Care: By following up with patients, dental professionals can tailor their treatment plans and recommendations based on individual needs and preferences. This personalized approach enhances the patient’s sense of being understood and valued.
  • Provides Continuity of Care: Follow-up calls and appointments ensure continuity of care and foster a sense of commitment and support, enhancing empathy between the dental professional and patient.
  • Encourages Patient Engagement: Follow-ups motivate patients to be more involved in their oral health. They feel supported and encouraged to maintain good dental habits, leading to improved overall oral health outcomes.

Building your empathy is essential for creating a successful practice. Dental teams with higher emotional intelligence work better together, build trust with team members and patients, and improve your life.

About the author: Dr. Kelly Tanner is a renowned leader at the forefront of reshaping dental care and helping teams and individuals reach professional fulfillment. Kelly’s combined leadership experience, doctoral education in business and leadership, and licensure in coaching have helped thousands of dental professionals get clear on their areas of growth, gain confidence in their workflow, build trust with patients and their dental team, and take ownership of case acceptance. For more content related to leadership, communication, technology, and mindset: