Inspiring confidence post-COVID-19

DATE: July 2020
AUTHOR: Louise Sinclair

As we look towards practicing dentistry as patients return and offices re-open, and later in the post-COVID-19 era, one of the key challenges dental students will face is patient confidence. Some people are understandably nervous about dental visits, so what can you say to reassure your patients and inspire confidence in the quality of care you provide?

Inspiring confidence is largely a matter of building trust and rapport between you and your patient. Here, we’ll highlight a number of communication techniques that will help you to achieve this during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Check your messaging

Before talking to your patients about COVID-19, make sure that your messaging is consistent with the latest recommendations from authoritative sources like the American Dental Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Confirm that you, your colleagues and clinical supervisors are all on the same page, and if no messaging has been communicated, don’t be afraid to ask.

Acknowledge concerns

COVID-19 has intensified anxiety for many nervous patients, and created new anxiety for previously confident patients. In either case, it’s important to demonstrate empathy and understanding. Avoid dismissive or judgmental responses, such as, “There’s really no need to worry about that” or “Don’t believe everything you see in the media!”

Instead, ask them how they feel about visiting the dentist, listen attentively, and acknowledge their concerns. You might try phrases like:

  • “It sounds like this is a scary experience for you. Is there anything I can do to put you at ease?”

  • “I hear you and I understand why you might feel concerned about that. Can I tell you about what we’ve been doing here to manage risk?”

Be transparent

Whether you’re talking about COVID-19 or discussing a treatment plan, it’s important to address risk honestly and transparently to keep your patient’s trust. While you do want to be a reassuring voice, you should avoid statements such as:

  • “There’s no risk of COVID-19 transmission because….”

  • “You’ll be fine because…”

Instead, you might say:

“We’re following strict recommendations from the CDC to keep you as safe as possible."

If you hadn't already discussed what you are doing to manage risk, you could also explain that at this point.

Reiterate and recap

Not all patients are comfortable asking you to repeat or clarify information. When you’re explaining something to your patient, reiterate and summarize key points, and periodically check in to make sure they understand. Examples of questions to ask include:

  • “Does that make sense?”

  • “Do you have any questions about that?”

  • “Would you like to know more about that?”

Listen attentively

Throughout the consultation and treatment, create opportunities for your patient to speak too, and listen attentively without interruption. Give your patient your full attention, maintain appropriate eye contact, and avoid fidgeting. To show that you’re engaged with what they’re saying, use gestures like nodding and leaning forward.

Reflect back

When your patient has finished speaking, paraphrase and reflect back what they’ve said to convey that you’ve understood them. For example:

  • “It sounds like you’re concerned that ____________. Is that right?”

  • “Let me make sure I’m understanding you correctly…”

Watch your paralanguage

Paralanguage refers to how you say something. It includes:

  • Pitch, pace, tone, volume and inflection

  • Filler or hesitation words (“like,” “um,” or “uh”)

  • Nervous laughter.

Your patient’s perception of you can be influenced by your paralanguage, often subconsciously. For example, fillers, hesitation and nervous laughter make you appear less confident and authoritative, and may even make your patient feel anxious. Try to eliminate these habits and keep your voice neutral, clear and even.

Developing excellent communication skills now will help you inspire confidence in your patients during COVID-19 and throughout your career.