The Key to Excellent Patient Communication? Empathy.

Four Tips (and Four Resources) to Improve Communication with Patients

As guidelines and safety protocols during the pandemic continue to evolve, skilled communication from a trusted dental provider can make all the difference.

And the key to outstanding patient communications can be summed up in one seven-letter word — empathy.

“This is the essence of person-centered care,” said Dr. Carolyn Brown, a senior strategic advisor at the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement. “It’s going to help you to build trust with your patients, your staff and your community — and help keep everyone safe.”

Brown was speaking to more than 500 dental professionals on a recent webinar about ensuring effective communication. The webinar, which also featured experts Matt Allen, DDS, and Kathy Eklund, RDH, MHP, broke down four techniques to help providers learn how to communicate with more empathy.

1. Involve the Whole Team

“Good communication with your patients really starts with good communication with your staff,” said Allen, president, M David MI Inc.

The first step, he said, is to establish clear rules and expectations on safety procedures before patients walk into the office. Whether setting up PPE checklists or agreeing to a filling out an employee screening log, making sure everyone understands the new processes will make it easier for staff to confidently explain the changes to patients when they have questions.

Brown suggested providers hold regular communication huddles as a team to update everyone on changes to safety protocols, discuss common patient questions and provide feedback to the staff on how they are handling these situations, especially as CDC and other guidance continues to evolve.

2. Simplify Your Language

When you’re trying to communicate complex guidance, the speakers explained, keeping language simple closes the gap in technical knowledge and gives patients the opportunity to learn in an approachable and informative way.

“While we’re out there scouring the ADA, CDC and all these other places for the latest information, our patients are looking to us,” Brown said. “We need to be able to take in all that technical information and convey it back to our patients in a way that conveys empathy and builds trust."

For example, a lot of guidance right now is focused on aerosol-generating procedures. Does that mean providers need to explain to patients the details around different size droplets created by various procedures and associated risk levels? No.

Instead, Brown said, providers can simplify the message and reassure patients by saying:

“New guidance suggests that we use lower-risk procedures to minimize possible exposure for everyone. That’s why you’re not seeing the same type of equipment as usual.”

3. Put Yourself in the Dentist’s Chair

The expert panel also urged providers to think about what it’s like for patients to hear all of this information for the first time. It’s also critical to consider what the patient is seeing and how body language can convey a message, especially when providers are covered in PPE.

“It’s important to remember that even though this has become somewhat routine for us — wearing PPE every day and going through these protocols — for the patient, this is likely their first visit back,” said Allen. “This is all new to them and they will likely have questions and concerns.”

4. Listen and Learn

Empathetic communication is a two-way street, so the experts also underscored the importance of listening, rather than just sharing information. How?

  • Give patients an opportunity to ask questions early and often.
  • Ask patients open-ended questions about their concerns.
  • Ask patients one or two simple exit questions after their appointment to gauge how they felt about their experience.

“After all of this change, I know it can be hard to take the time to go through this process,” said Brown. “But things like exit questions for patients, communication huddles and getting feedback will help you get better at your job and keep everyone safe.”

Editor’s Note: Here are some additional resources to help providers keep patients safe and comfortable before, during and after appointments: