Managing patient expectations

Patients and dental professionals may sometimes have different expectations about the outcome of treatment.

In an ideal world, dental professionals and patients should both be on the same page when it comes to expectations and outcomes of any treatment. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, and has been a particularly relevant issue since dental practices reopened after the coronavirus pandemic, with many facing delayed or interrupted courses of treatment causing a significant backlog.

It may seem obvious, but it's worth noting that the more realistic a patient's expectations, and the more aligned they are with the eventual outcome, the less likely they'll be unhappy with their treatment - and less likely to make a complaint.

However, a patient's expectations don't just apply to their dental care. They may also have concerns that non-clinical aspects of their attendance didn't meet their expectations, or feel that something went wrong, when in fact, from the clinician's perspective, the treatment provided was of an appropriate standard.

These issues can also include the emotional impact of the experience, or if they felt cared about (and cared for) by the dental team.

Contributing factors

These following issues are just some of the contributing factors that might lead to patient having unrealistic expectations when receiving dental treatment.

  • Lack of information - patients may not have been appropriately informed about what to expect. They could have unrealistic expectations about things like waiting times, treatment availability or complications of treatment.
  • Too much information - patients might attend the practice with a preconception of how they will be treated. This might be because they've based their expectations on previous experiences that aren't relevant or accurate anymore, or on the experiences of friends or relatives whose situation may have been different.
  • Time pressures - it can be challenging to manage appointment times with all the precautions required for the safe running of a dental practice. Spending enough time talking to a patient to check they fully understand the issues involved in their care, the potential complications of their treatment or alternative treatment options is still a vitally important step. Always try to ensure there is sufficient time for this.
  • Anxiety - if a patient is anxious when they come to the practice, this can compound the factors above and make misunderstandings more likely.

How to manage patients' expectations

There are several ways the dental team can help patients manage their expectations and maximise their satisfaction, while also minimising the risk of a complaint.

Make sure information is easily accessible

Clear and consistent information from all members of the practice team, on your website, social media channels, answering machines and posters in waiting rooms, can help patients know what to expect.

This is particularly useful in letting patients know how long appointments should last, the procedures when arriving at the dental practice, opening times, treatment fees and so on.

Communicate in a way the patient can understand

Remember that each patient is different and will have different needs and levels of understanding. Try to avoid dental terminology, abbreviations and jargon, and with the patient's permission, involve those close to them in the discussion where appropriate.

Providing patient information leaflets or information about extra resources for the patient to read at home may all be helpful additions to the information you provide in surgery.

Check the patient's understanding and let them ask questions

There are many reasons why a patient might have difficulty absorbing what you say. Check that the patient has truly understood all of the information you have given.

Show empathy and understanding

Establishing a good rapport and professional relationship with your patient goes a long way to gaining their trust - and as a consequence, improving their experience of their care.

Be open to feedback

Developing a non-confrontational way for patients to discuss concerns or leave feedback can allow you to address any issues early on and hopefully avoid escalation to a complaint. This might also help you to make any changes that can improve patient confidence in the care you provide.

Giving patients opportunities for them to discuss their care also lets you reassure them, manage their expectations and build trust.

Patients and the dental team will always have different perspectives. But by being aware of these differences, dentists and the wider dental team can anticipate concerns and find ways to manage the situation effectively.

A version of this piece was originally published in BDJ Team in October 2020.

This page was correct at publication on 22/06/2022. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Alison Large

by Alison Large

Alison Large graduated from Newcastle Dental School in 1999. After qualification she worked in general practice for over 10 years, initially in the north east of England before relocating to Oxfordshire. She gained an MFGDP(UK) diploma in 2007, has been a vocational trainer and has also provided mentoring. She joined the DDU in 2008 and currently combines her dento-legal adviser role with looking after her young family.


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