What dentists know about fear free—and how the veterinary profession can use it

Dentists and DVMs are tied together by their independent spirit and a willingness to fight for better patient healthcare. Can you learn something from dentists about creating a friendlier, less painful patient experience?
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Aug 01, 2014

If you think your patients and owners are scared of a visit to the doctor's office, think about a visit to the dentist. Our nation's teeth-and-gum experts have been the perpetual butt of jokes. They must hate their jobs, we figure. They make people feel pain with every visit, every time.

But things have changed. Been to the dentist lately? There are warmer colors on walls, more time spent with patients in treatment, better communication and an aggressive focus on preventive care that helps patients avoid some of the more painful procedures. And have you been to a pediatric dentist? Many of those places are like a child's dream playroom: video games and animal murals, cartoons on demand in the dentist's chair, and all the washes and medicines flavored like candy. One dental assistant told us one child loved the dentist experience so much, he pledged never to brush his teeth again so he could come back to the office as often as possible. (Don't worry—they set him straight.)

When it comes to Fear Free practice, dentists have been working at it for years. So consider these cues from low-stress dental practices to create a less fearful experience for all in your veterinary hospital.

"Everybody hated us"

Patients sometimes have fearful experiences in a dentist's office, replete with long needles, loud drills, hands and metal in one of the most vulnerable places of the human body: the mouth. Could your veterinary patients relate?

"Few like coming here. Everyone puts off going to the dentist, they don't like it. They don't have the money. And by putting things off, they have major problems. [When they present with serious symptoms, sometimes] we can't get them numb, so we send them away with antibiotics and they don't always come back."

—Tija Hunter
Office manager and dental assistant Boardwalk Family Dental, O'Fallon, Missouri

Operating on the patient's time

A heavily quoted suggestion for promoting Fear Free visits in veterinary clinics is giving pets a little more time to acclimate to the exam room. A dog gets a treat while the pet owner and technician chat. The cat has a chance to walk around. For dentists, the same works for kids.

"We give patients the time they need. That's what we've written in the brochures: 'We operate on your child's time.' If we see that the child starts off timid, we take an extra 10 to 15 minutes. When we discharge them, we'll give them extra time next time, too."

—Robert Delarosa, DDS
President-elect of American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry

"Take their minds off the procedure"

Reading materials have been a staple in medical reception areas for a long time, but today's dental office offers innovative ways to distract patients from procedures. What ways could you distract veterinary patients and their owners during, for example, a quick injection?

"I use noise-canceling headsets and TVs mounted on the ceiling. Patients pick their own music and videos. They can watch and take their minds off the procedure."

—Ed Shellard, DDS
Chief marketing officer and director of business development
Dental products company Carestream

Calming clients with community

It's not just patients scared of the veterinarian—pet owners can be especially fearful of difficult or complicated procedures. The fear isn't just about the cost; it's about something going wrong or handling difficult home care for a particular condition. Word-of-mouth has worked well for referrals, so why not put it to the test for something more—offering peace of mind to veterinary clients?

"If I have a young patient who's going to go through some corrective orthodontic treatment, we watch to see if the parent is a little apprehensive. [If we need to,] we ask another parent to call to tell them, 'Hey, look, my son went through it, it's not that bad.' Having that kind of conversation with someone who has gone through it is invaluable."

—Robert Delarosa, DDS

Where's the love?

Dentists are in the same boat veterinarians are when it comes to patient evaluations—people can't judge whether a dentist does the best sealants, crowns or root canals, but they can judge whether they're made to feel comfortable, safe and as pain-free as possible during a visit. The same goes for pet patients and their owners.

"Today, our instruments and technology are much gentler. The only thing that sets [a practice] apart is customer service, so we make sure we make an impact on every patient. When patients walk in the door, we go out of our way to smile, to greet them, to introduce them to the team. Your patients will come back if they love you."

— Tija Hunter