Improving communication in the dental practice

07. October 2022 | Patients, Information for dentists

Good communication in the dental practice is the basis for a patient’s trust in his or her dentist. Dentists who take their time, listen attentively, and take concerns and fears seriously will have more satisfied patients. In this article, we will show you how to improve patient satisfaction and what you should pay attention to regarding verbal and non-verbal communication.

You cannot not communicate

In addition to dental treatments as such, part of your job as a dentist is to communicate with your patients. But where does communication start and who is involved? The very first contact between the patient and your practice starts off the communication process. Patients usually find out about your practice online, through a recommendation, or simply by walking by and noticing your practice. Regardless of how exactly the first contact was established, the important thing is to make a good first impression. We explained how to ensure your website makes a good first impression in a previous article.

The second contact occurs when patients make an appointment: either via your online scheduling tool or by phone. The first personal contact usually takes place on the day of the appointment. When patients enter your practice, your practice team greets them and registers their (medical) data. As a dentist, you are the last point of contact when you carry out the consultation or treatment.

Patients come into personal contact with you and your team and usually sense the mood in your practice, which can have a positive or negative impact on their feelings. Build positive expectations and do not phrase possible treatment consequences too negatively. In addition to the placebo effect, there is also the nocebo effect. A placebo study revealed that patients experienced negative side effects they had been told about, even though the drugs had no effect from a medical point of view (source: magazine zm073, 12/2009).

No matter what activities you or your team are engaged in: remember that you are always communicating, even when you are not talking. Body language, gestures, or facial expressions are also part of your communication. When communicating, you are the sender who encodes a message. The patient represents the receiver who decodes this message. Of course, the message is by no means always understood exactly as you intended it to be. Each recipient decodes them in their own way. Messages always have several “layers” (see also the ‘four-sides model’ by Friedemann Schulz von Thun).

So, try to choose your words, gestures, and facial expressions wisely. Silence is often interpreted as a negative signal by patients. Hence, you cannot not communicate.

Verbal and non-verbal communication

The ‘Calgary-Cambrige concept’ breaks down the dentist-patient conversation into five steps:
1. starting the conversation
2. gathering information
3. physical examination
4. explanation and further planning
5. ending the conversation

Throughout the conversation, it is your job as the dentist to provide a certain communicative structure and to connect with the patient. Do not only pay attention to your verbal but also to your non-verbal communication. Make friendly gestures like nodding and smiling and agree regularly with what your patients have to say. Your posture should be open, so try to keep both feet on the floor and do not cross your arms. Maintain eye contact with your patients. Throughout the entire appointment, they should feel that you are always present. So, take your time, listen carefully, and let your patients finish speaking. In return, you will get all the necessary information. You can also use strategic pauses to encourage your patients to talk.

In the beginning, a little small talk will help you break the ice. Find common interests or a current event and take a moment to talk about it. For many patients, going to the dentist is a rather unpleasant experience. Breaking the ice can help them to forget potential anxious feelings. During the appointment, make sure to ask about their well-being every now and then. In this way, patients will notice that you are there just for them, that you take good care of them, and that you take their worries and fears seriously.

Communication is also immensely important during the examination. Here it is mostly down to verbal communication. Explain which treatment step you are currently performing, what you will need which dental instrument for, and how the treatment will proceed. Be careful not to get too caught up in your technical jargon. Medical terms are often unfamiliar to patients and can cause discomfort. Instead, use words that a layperson can easily understand.

A summary of the treatment is also helpful. After the treatment, patients are more relaxed and can absorb information more easily. Explain the rest of the process, future dates, encourage questions, and – most importantly – take all the time you need.

How to communicate well

Good communication in the dental practice builds trust and, thus, forms the basis of the patient-dentist relationship. It also has positive side effects such as anxiety reduction, decreased pain perception, and referrals to your practice. Especially with anxiety patients (see also article ‘Dealing with anxious patients’), communication is essential for building trust. Unfortunately, good communication skills are only rarely taught in schools. Therefore, workshops and seminars can provide valuable insights to you and your team.


In summary, these are the essential points that ensure good communication in the dental practice:

  • paying attention to verbal and non-verbal communication
  • letting patients finish what they are saying
  • taking your time
  • listening attentively
  • active eye contact with the patient
  • open posture
  • addressing questions and concerns in detail
  • explaining next steps and instruments involved in the treatment
  • friendly and empathetic communication by the whole team

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