Integrating Emotional Dentistry into Your Practice

Using emotional intelligence and empathetic understanding can help build connections that benefit both patient and practitioner.

By Susan Richards

While there’s a growing recognition of the oral and overall health connection, the intersection between dental health and the dental patient’s mental well-being doesn’t get the same attention. Further discussion and practice of emotional dentistry can help bridge that gap – to benefit both patient and practitioner.

What exactly is emotional dentistry? Fear and anxiety already populate familiar territory for the sedation dentist who regularly addresses ambivalence about treatment and results. Expanding upon that awareness can help all dental professionals build healthy connections with their patients and improve the well-being of the entire practice.

Understanding the Oral Health and Emotional Connection

A recent Incisor article by Dr. Mehmood Asghar explored the research behind the oral-mental health link – including the evidence suggesting periodontal disease may be a contributing factor to the onset of depression. The vicious cycle continues when patients who struggle with mental health tend to neglect their oral health, creating even more issues that interfere with improving their emotional outlook.

According to a study reported in Psychiatric News, over 65% of respondents with poor mental health admitted to doing nothing about their dental symptoms. This, in turn, resulted in tooth loss, possibly compromised speech, diminished self-esteem, socialization problems, and so on. Chronic pain from dental problems can also decrease serotonin levels, which exacerbate depression and anxiety – all leading to worse overall health concerns. Also included in this loop is xerostomia, a common side effect of many psychotropic medications that leads to gum disease and tooth decay.

It’s important to be aware of these cyclical cause-and-effect issues when evaluating new patients and treating current ones who may struggle with emotions surrounding their oral health.

Integrating Emotional Care into the Dental Practice

A person’s smile has a very strong bond to their self-esteem. Studies referenced in a recent Bite Magazine article revealed that almost half of those surveyed said their smile topped the list of things they would change about themselves.

The advent of social media and selfies has only increased the unrealistic perceptions and expectations people have about their appearance. While dentists may not be able to resolve the deeper problems of smile dysmorphia, active listening, effective communication, and empathy can all help alleviate patient anxiety and improve self-esteem.

The regular advances in dental technology also make the practice of emotional dentistry easier to integrate. Thanks to intraoral cameras and digital imagery, patients can visualize the potential outcome of treatment and see the smile – and improved oral health – they desire. These tools can be used to encourage procedures that might include:

  • Teeth whitening
  • Dental implants
  • Orthodontics and aligners
  • Gum contouring
  • Dental bridges
  • Veneers and crowns

The Power of Empathy

Most dental professionals enter the field with an aspiration to help people, but they probably have more hurdles than other healthcare members when communicating that goal to fearful, anxious people. Many nervous patients have stories of previous negative experiences that the dentist must overcome. Therefore, conveying empathy is crucial to reassuring patients and achieving successful outcomes.

Psychologists have defined three types of empathy – cognitive, emotional, and compassionate – each with their relative benefits and pitfalls. Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is considered the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. The good news is it can be taught and learned.

A 2021 survey for the National Library of Medicine, Journal of Patient Experience, explored the attitude and empathy levels of dental postgraduates towards their patients in practice and research. The research highlighted the importance of understanding patients’ feelings and experiences to conduct an effective dental examination.

The study concluded that “educational programs on research ethics and clinical practice will further increase empathy levels among budding dentists.” It also reinforced the position that empathy in dental professionals is even more critical than in other healthcare fields.

The results of good communication and patient-dentist trust are numerous and ultimately benefit all parties, including:

  • Patient satisfaction.
  • Lower levels of stress and dental chair anxiety.
  • Increased treatment plan acceptance rates.
  • Improved pain management.
  • Long-term patient relationships and retention.
  • More patient referrals.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Being an empathetic healthcare professional does not mean there’s a bottomless reservoir of care and concern for patients. Compassion fatigue is common, especially for dentists running a business and managing other empathetic team members.

Dental practice burnout can cut their careers short and impact the patients’ experiences. Dentists are encouraged to recognize the emotional toll and implement support systems and self-care practices within the office. Meditation and relaxation techniques can help both the patient and the practitioner.

Sedation dentists already have a strong foothold in emotional dentistry, but continued awareness and conscientious compassion can only help bridge the gap between oral health and psychological well-being.


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Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education with over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing. Her career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.

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