What confused patients need from their dentist

Going to the dentist can be a really challenging experience. Quite apart from the immediate fear factor, you may be asked to make decisions on matters you know little or nothing about with irreversible effects on your life. What’s at stake? Everything.

You are worried about your teeth and your money and you are confused. But never mind that; after the dentist has explained the prognosis and the implications of various treatments and non-treatment, it’s crunch time…

You must choose one of several options which ‘fix’ the same problem: do you want a bridge to cover your missing tooth, an implant which costs more, or perhaps you might want to just leave a gap there? The bridge might seem a good compromise, but wait, it means adjacent teeth have to be damaged on purpose. And it will probably need replacing in eight years. The dentist is recommending an implant which costs £2,300, but how do you know he isn’t just upselling?

It’s a bit like trying to choose a laptop in Currys after having spent the last 25 years in a coma. Why are some £200 and others £3,500? And, please, what on earth is an Intel® Core™ i5-3337U processor? You only came in because your pen broke, but suddenly you’re attempting to solve a major cost/benefit riddle. It’s a lot to take in.

Try substituting dental treatments for IT capacity in this riddle. After all, lay understanding of contemporary dental work may be just as poor as an early 1990s consumer’s grasp of modern computers. The only difference is the subject is just a bit more emotive. Talking to a stranger about your mouth, your life and your bank balance really calls for a kind of pastoral care to help you cope. For a patient in their first consultation, support is perhaps the most important attribute in a dentist.

Not all dentists may like it, but they now occupy a space in the medical world at the intersection of clinical and retail. Dental patients are there because they want to make a transaction, and it’s the dentist’s job to help them make the right choice. The first and most important challenge is to win trust and give the patient faith in their professional integrity, so their recommendation has real value.

Some choices are less appropriate than others and the dentist should have the confidence and experience to say so and guide the patient.