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Tips for Delivering Bad News to Your Patients

By Choice Dental Solutions, Jun 6 2018 01:00PM

One of the hardest parts of working in the medical field is having to be the bearer of bad news. From root canals to extractions, dentists have plenty of bad news that they need to deliver to patients on a regular basis. While it might never be easy for you, there are many ways that you make it easier. Here are our best tips for softening the blow and delivering bad news to your patients.

Acknowledge That You Will Feel Bad

One of the many reasons why doctors and dentists go into medicine is to make patients feel better. However, delivering unfortunate news is the opposite of that. Regardless of how a patient feels before hearing something bad, go into the situation knowing that the news you are going to give will make them feel worse. Trying to make patients feel better about bad news is counterproductive and can actually damage the doctor-patient relationship.

Give Context

Just like you prepare yourself for delivering a diagnosis, give your patients time to prepare as well. Even a few seconds of preparation can help to ease the pain of hearing something negative, even if it is only a little bit. Don’t overdo it and ask a patient to sit down, but don’t be afraid to tell a patient to brace themselves.

Be Clear and Unequivocal

Don’t say, “There’s a small spot on your tooth I’m concerned about” if a patient needs an extraction. Instead say, “We need to extract this tooth.” Softening the blow with technical terms or by minimizing the bad news won’t do any good. In the best cases, it will delay the patient from understanding what has occurred. In the worst cases, it gives patients skepticism about the severity of their diagnosis and encourages denial.

Allow Time for Processing

It’s tempting to launch into a 20-minute-long explanation of what a diagnosis means and what the treatment plan should be, but when you deliver shocking news, a patient will probably not be listening to anything else you say for at least a few minutes. Allow your patients time to process the diagnosis before you lay out the treatment plan and logic behind the procedure you are recommending.

Never Allow a Patient to Feel Hopeless

In dentistry, sometimes things feel hopeless. Suggesting multiple fillings on a pediatric patient is not pleasurable. Recommending a denture for a patient with severe tooth loss can feel bad. However, you should never let your patients feel hopeless about their health or situation. Patients will be more likely to follow a treatment plan if they feel optimistic about their health afterward.

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Jun 27 2018 04:15PM by David Grau

Just curious - dentists really don't know the things you said in your article above? I'm a dentist and I can't imagine not doing any of the things you suggested (other than "don’t be afraid to tell a patient to brace themselves"; I'd never say that; way too draconian). Do you think, given your experience with dentists, that the vast majority of dentists need the advice above or are we talking a very small percentage? Most dentists I've worked with have been very appropriate when delivering unfavorable news to a patient, but just my experience is not enough to reach any logical conclusion about the need out there like the advice you provided. Hence, my question.

Thank you!

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