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The Keys to Effective Communication in Dentistry

RecallMax is all about helping you improve your patient experience.

While the actual physical care you provide for your patients is one of the most important things you will do as a dentist, it’s also important to create a well-communicated experience for your patients every time you interact with them.

Patients are drawn not only to care but also to experience. They look for certain things in their doctor, and each of them might have a different idea of what their doctor should say and do. However, it’s important to understand that interaction between doctors and patients is an interaction between 2 “experts”; the doctor is the expert in their field, and the patient is the expert on themselves.

By listening to your patient and responding to their needs, you can help enhance their dental experience and possibly even hold on to their business for years to come. Today, we’re going to look at some keys to effective communication with your patients, why communication is important, and what you can do even to improve communication with your colleagues.

Let’s jump in!

Why is Communication Important?

Much progress has been made in doctor/patient communication in the last 50 years. In the 1970s, communication was thought to be an inherent skill that couldn’t be taught. Doctors were usually hired because of their technical skills and knowledge, and not for their bedside manner. 

As the years progressed, more energy was put into developing communication skills for doctors, and reports suggested that these skills should be taught and assessed at the undergraduate level. By the 1990s, interpersonal skills were being taught to doctors around the world for a range of different disciplines.

The Nova Scotia Dental Association (NSDA) makes the role of communication clear: your job as a dentist, and as a communicator, is to provide your patients with the power to make informed decisions about their oral health by giving them your opinions, goals, and findings you make during your relationship with them.

By opening up better communication with your patients, you can achieve 3 specific goals:

Satisfaction for Patients

Communication helps your patients feel satisfied with their dental experience. When they’re satisfied, it can be easier to follow your instructions and even return for more appointments in the future.

Fewer Complaints

Not everyone is perfect, and mistakes are inevitable. But by having an open dialogue between you and your patient, friendliness and courtesy will prevail, and your client will be less likely to complain even if they’ve had a bad experience. According to the NSDA, nearly 4 out of 5 of the complaint calls they receive can be resolved with better communication.

More Efficient Work Experience

In some cases, your patient may be shy or confused about what to expect from their dental experience, and these issues can slow down their treatments if they begin to feel uncomfortable with what you may be doing to help them. Setting up clear expectations for your patient will allow you to complete your work with the efficiency you need.

Tools of the Trade


Phone calls are the ideal ways of communicating with your patients who aren’t in your office. However, there are certain practices you should maintain:

  • Ensure you have a front-desk receptionist available to answer calls before they go to voicemail. 87% of new patients will not leave a voicemail message if their first interaction is with a machine.
  • Approach every conversation with empathy, kindness, and compassion.
  • Value your patient’s time by being informative and efficient. If you need to call your patient, please respect their schedule by only calling them during common business hours. Late night or early morning phone calls are not appropriate.

Email & Text

Emailing and text messaging patients are common ways to recall patients for their future appointments. A study has found that 72% of surveyed surgeons believe that text messaging enhances patient care, but etiquette is involved when using these mediums:

  • Obtain your patient’s written consent before you start sending them texts and emails.
  • Do not mention or use your patient’s sensitive information in an unsecured email or text conversation.
  • Know when information is better to tell in person than through emails or text.

Strategies to Improve Communication with Patients

What Do Patients Look For From Their Dentist

According to the NSDA, patients look for 6 simple things from their dental experience:

  • Friendliness: Simple politeness and courtesy from their dentist
  • Empathy: The dentist appreciates and values the patient’s wants and needs
  • Efficiency and punctuality: Patient’s feel their time is respected
  • Control: Patients are a part of their treatment plans
  • Options and alternatives: Patients are given alternatives to suit their needs better
  • Information: Patients can get the information they need when they need it

Communicating With Your Patient During an Appointment

Setting clear communication practices shouldn’t just take place just before and after an appointment, you should communicate throughout the patient experience:

Diagram infographic explaining the keys to good communication in dentistry

Strategies for Better Communication Between Professionals

Situation, Background, Assessment, & Recommendation (SBAR)

Communication isn’t just a patient-facing focus your practice should have; it’s also essential to ensure that excellent communication is happening on the health care side. One way doctors around the world have improved their communication with their colleagues is using the Situation, Background, Assessment, & Recommendation (SBAR) tool.

The Agency has recommended SBAR for Healthcare Research and Quality, Institute for Health Care Improvement, and the World Health Organization as a useful tool for handing off patients to new doctors or health care practitioners. It can be broken down by its namesake:

  • Situation: A clear understanding of the patient’s current condition and clinical trajectory 
  • Background: It’s easy to identify the diagnoses or reasoning behind a patient’s admission
  • Assessment: The detailed evaluations of the patient’s medical status
  • Recommendation: A clear and descriptive rationale for the patient’s next course of action

Planning/Reflection Meetings

Especially for particularly complicated situations, it’s always good to have meetings with your staff to talk about the treatment of the patient and what they’ve learned after completing a patient’s treatment.

These meetings will help get your team on the same page regarding your patient’s treatment, so there is a level of care they can always expect when they come in for their appointments.

Workplace Standards

Part of communicating is setting proper expectations and standards that everyone on your team must follow. This helps take the guesswork out of handling a patient after they’ve transferred care between staff members and maintains a certain quality of service that the patient will appreciate.

You can accomplish this in multiple ways; by creating checklists staff follow with their patients, by logging treatment plans and the points where the patient is at, or even having a workplace guide staff can refer to.

See The Difference Communication Can Make

Retaining patients is hard, but by communicating clearly, you can help set clear expectations and possibly achieve a better patient experience.