The relationship between you and your patient will have a significant impact on their oral health outcomes. A great relationship means that your patient is more likely to present for routine care, more engaged in their treatment planning, and more motivated to follow your oral health and hygiene advice. On the other hand, a negative relationship can lead to everything from non-compliance to conflict. Building positive relationships is a process that takes time and effort, but it doesn’t have to be difficult! By following these five simple steps, you can lay the foundations of a great relationship with each and every patient.
1. Establish a rapport
Rapport is defined as “a friendly, harmonious relationship… characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.” It creates a sense of “being on the same team”, making your patient more receptive to your oral health advice and more likely to follow it. You can start to build rapport with these simple communication tips:
Create genuine warmth. Welcome your patient by name, with a friendly smile, and show sincere interest in their wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to inject some light humor once you’ve gotten to know your patient better, but steer away clear of sensitive topics or sarcasm.
Remember the important things. Some dentists make note of personal details like family, hobbies or vacation plans in their patients’ notes so they can enquire about them in the next appointment.
Don’t rush them to the chair. Allow your patient time to discuss their concerns and ask questions before moving them to the chair. Face the patient, listen attentively, and never interrupt or “multi-task” while they’re talking.
Match and mirror. These rapport-building techniques involve subtly imitating your patient’s communication style to show likeness between you. For example, verbally, you might match their volume, tone, level of expressiveness, and speed. Non-verbally, you might mirror their body positioning, posture, gestures, and movements.
2. Build trust
There can be no effective dentist-patient relationship without trust. Rapport is one of the most effective ways to build trust, but there are lots of other tricks you can try. These include:
Treating the patient as an equal partner in their care planning.
Respecting their wants, needs and personal circumstances.
Making time for questions and providing open, honest answers.
Showing empathy to patients, especially when anxious or distressed.
Being transparent about waiting times, fees and treatment schedules.
Honoring commitments and communicating proactively when you can’t.
Maintaining a professional and consistent brand, image and environment.
3. Ask the right questions
Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, and they should make up the majority of the questions you ask your patients. One benefit is that these questions open up a dialogue and encourage patients to talk about themselves in more detail — two great tools for building rapport. Another is that they provide you with much richer information that you can use to help your patients (better outcomes = stronger relationships!). Patients will often disclose information that they might not otherwise believe to be relevant, giving you lots of clues on their oral health status and any systemic health, diet, lifestyle and behavioral factors that may be influencing it.
4. Understand their needs
As the clinical expert, you will know the best interventions or treatments for the patient on paper. However, each patient will come to you with their own complex set of experiences, beliefs, values, wants, needs, goals and challenges. What appears to be the best course of action from a clinical perspective, then, will not always be the best course of action for this particular patient.
Take the time to understand exactly what your patient wants from their treatment, and recognize that it may not always align with your clinical judgment. They will know best how a particular treatment fits into their circumstances or meets their needs. In order to preserve the trust you’ve built with your patient, it is essential to respect their right to autonomy over their treatment path.
5. Identify barriers and limitations
Non-compliant patients can be a major source of frustration for dental professionals, but the reality is that many well-intentioned patients face barriers and limitations when it comes to putting your oral care advice into action. By proactively identifying these oral health obstacles, you can help your patient to overcome them.
As you’re providing advice, consider barriers and solutions like:
Does the patient understand spoken English well? If not, can I ask a bilingual colleague for support or offer translated resources?
Does the patient have any sensory or learning disabilities that might affect their understanding? If so, can I provide this information in an accessible format?
Does the patient have any physical disabilities that might prevent them from performing oral hygiene? If so, how can I modify my recommendations for them?
Is the patient anxious, distressed or in pain? If so, can I provide a written summary for them to take away and process later?
Some barriers, like mental illness, financial difficulties or adverse personal circumstances, may not be immediately apparent. However, the techniques we’ve previously discussed can be very helpful for uncovering hidden obstacles such as these. If you have a good rapport with your patient, make time for them to talk, and ask them open-ended questions, they will often reveal information that suggests a barrier. Connecting those dots shows that you’re truly listening and you genuinely care about finding solutions.
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