Empathy: A quality of interpersonal effectiveness that involves sharing others’ feelings; an ability to feel or perceive things from others’ points of view.1
Given the information that empathetic physicians have greater patient satisfaction,2 this article explores the benefits from the display of empathy by dental practitioners. The practice of thinking and feeling empathy affects provider/patient relationships. An empathetic practitioner can effectively increase both patient satisfaction and treatment acceptance by communicating empathy to patients.
The ability to be clear, focused, reflective, effective in disclosure, and able to clearly address mixed messages while acknowledging the importance of information is essential for effective, empathetic communication.1 Effective, empathetic communication in the dental setting reduces stress for the patient. It also forms mutual trust between patient and practitioner because of the provider’s ability to perceive the patient’s point of view in a manner that helps the practitioner more effectively explain future treatment needs.
Empathetic communication by the dental practitioner can be achieved by combining listening skills, empathetic thinking, and empathetic feeling. The success in doing so can lead to authentic conversations between practitioner and patient that can establish trust, patient compliance, and patient acceptance of the best treatment options.
A two-way conversation in the dental chair is important. The patient communicates concerns and questions. The provider communicates treatment processes and needs while understanding patient anxiety.
An empathetic provider listens with empathy, seeking to understand each individual patient in terms of both dental and emotional needs. This type of listening must involve a combination of not only empathetic listening but also active and polite listening as well. Active listening is a term from counseling that dictates that a therapist must “fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said.”
An empathetic dental provider uses polite listening skills, for example, by allowing the patient to speak without interruption, giving positive acknowledgment gestures such as a nod or smile, and giving appropriate and positive feedback.
In thinking empathy, you express an understanding of what the other person means.1
Once the empathetic dental provider takes the time to listen, they can express to the patient that they understand how the patient feels and what they mean. For example, a patient may describe a previous dental visit and the anxiety that resulted from the poor experience. The empathetic provider listens, understands, and communicates an understanding of that description, but also conveys ways to modify the current visit or setting in order to avoid triggering the negative experience of the past. The most important aspect of this goal is to acknowledge that the past experience was valid and able to be changed in a positive way.
Empathy feeling is when “you demonstrate a similarity between what you’re feeling and what the other person is feeling.”1 Being able to listen, express understanding, and then find ways to show personal similarity to the patient completes the full process for the empathetic dental provider.
Because a patient can express dental anxiety as a result of past negative experiences, the empathetic provider may listen and acknowledge the patient’s narrative while also providing a similar personal story. This would not only solidify the validity of the patient’s concerns, but also lead to decreased patient anxiety, increased mutual respect, and increased treatment acceptance.
An example of such mutual experience involves a hygienist who has had two dental procedures that often trigger patient anxiety, periodontal surgery, and endodontic treatment. In her daily practice, she often discusses her own treatment experiences with patients who are facing similar treatment recommendations. In sharing personal anecdotes about having both of those procedures, this hygienist shares her own pre-procedural anxieties that led to postponing the procedures, actual in-chair experience of each procedure, and her own recovery stories.
She goes onto explain that in the endodontic case, her delay actually led to a toothache, which should serve as a cautionary tale. By admitting her own fears, the hygienist connects with an anxious patient on a comparable level that can result in a positive, conversational transition from fears to the actual procedure and its benefits.
Speaking on a similar level with the patient allows her to be trusted as they discuss that the hygienist’s in-chair experience and recovery time were easier than she expected. In addition to the story, she often provides tips which helped her through recovery and always offers to answer any questions that may arise before, during, or after the treatment.
While not every practitioner may be able to practice empathy with natural ease, the importance of being able to find ways to be more empathetic in the workplace shows clear benefits to patient relationships, patient acceptance, and overall satisfaction. These benefits ultimately increase practice success.
Since being an empathetic provider is clearly beneficial, dental practices who want success should take steps to foster the skills of empathy among their providers within the practice. Dental hygienists can take the lead in this journey since they are often primary patient communicators within the practice.
- DeVito, J.A. (2019). The interpersonal communication book(15th ed.).
- Rappleye, E. (2016). Study finds empathy impacts patient satisfaction more than wait times: Nearly two-thirds of patient satisfaction was attributed to physician empathy in a recent study of hand surgeons. Retrieved from https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-physician-relationships/study-finds-empathy-impacts-patient-satisfaction-more-than-wait-times.html