An open letter to my patients who are afraid of the dentist
It’s been five, ten, even fifteen years since you’ve scheduled a dentist appointment. The thought of sitting in the chair, the sound of the drill, the sharp-edged memories of the mobile dentists in childhood with their impatient, rough hands are still open wounds you’ve tried and failed to heal over the years.
You know that you’re long overdue for a check-up, which adds to the fear of making that appointment. You’re terrified that your teeth will be beyond saving, or that you’ll need hours upon hours of painful, costly dental treatment to fix the ones you have. You know that one day the pain of a decaying tooth will force you to take the step of finally coming to the dentist, and by then it may be too late for routine dental care. You know it inside, but that doesn’t make it easier to pick up the phone and ring us. The mere thought of stepping foot into a white-washed, clinical dental practice and hearing the disappointed reprimand from a hygienist with perfect veneers, who thinks it’s easy to come in every six months like clockwork, is all too much.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In my decades of experience as a dentist, I’ve met patients like you whose fears of the dentist range from mild nervousness to a fear so deep, the patient can’t even sit in the exam chair for a routine screening. Our practice offers general anaesthetic (sleep) dentistry, which attracts people who truly believe they cannot endure the dentist while conscious. Dental phobias are common and costly—fear of the dentist often leads to dental health neglect, which is a vicious cycle, because neglect means more time spent with the dentist when painful or dangerous complications arise.
You’re not alone. And the good news is, there are tools and tricks to find a dentist who can empathise with your fear and provide a genuinely pain-free, honest experience.
Tip One: Let’s start a conversation.
The longer you’ve spent avoiding the dentist, the greater the chance is the pressure of making that appointment has grown so great it feels like climbing Mount Everest. Take a baby step instead. Find a dentist with good word-of-mouth, either with fantastic online reviews or recommended by a friend, family member, or colleague. A great dentist will always have someone raving about their excellent bedside manner.
Ring the dentist, don’t book online. Although we offer online bookings for convenience, sometimes chatting to a friendly receptionist will begin to put your fears at ease as you build rapport with the clinic. Book a consultation or general exam, not a procedure. Great dentists will offer consultation appointments for a relatively budget-friendly cost, where you can have 45 minutes to an hour of their time to ask questions, get a feel for who they are and what they offer, and have a quick visual examination of your teeth. Ask questions. Talk about your fears. It helps your dentist attend to you on a personal level, and when you do schedule that routine clean, filling, or crown, you’ll feel more at ease that you’re coming to someone you can trust who has your best interests in mind.
Tip Two: Rest easy, you have options.
In my years of practice, I’ve had countless patients who have put off going to the dentist because they are terrified that all of their teeth will need to be extracted. Breathe easy.
The days of teeth extraction are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Twenty or thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for extraction to be the most cost-effective, easiest “routine maintenance” in dentistry. Today, for great dentists, it’s an absolute last resort. Some patients don’t realise their teeth are able to be saved. Dental technology in Australia has exploded, and fillings, crowns, and implants are stronger, more natural-looking, and becoming more cost-effective. Dentists are shying more and more away from dentures and trying to save patients from a lifetime of bone loss and undo wear and tear on their remaining teeth. A great dentist will talk to you about options.
Which brings us to our next point:
Tip Three: Find a dentist who puts you in control.
A great dentist, during a consultation and exam, will always present you with all of your options. They may offer advice and wisdom based on their experience, but in the end, they will always leave the decision to you. They will provide all-inclusive treatment plans with accurate price quotes, refer well-established specialists if needed, and give you every available option. It will never be about what’s easiest or most profitable for them, but rather, what is best for you and your lifestyle.
Tip Four: Painless Dentistry is Possible!
This is probably the hardest to believe tip, but it’s true. With a patient, great dentist, you should feel little-to-no pain. I always assure my patients that if they put their hand up at any point in my procedure, (remember, they’re in control!) I will stop what I’m doing and re-numb the area.
Injections shouldn’t hurt.
Needles today are the width of a strand of hair! When patients experience pain during an injection, it’s actually because the dentist is putting in the liquid too quickly. With patience and attention to detail, a patient should feel no pain during or after an injection. Don’t believe it? My online reviews often tout the miracles of “a painless crown!” from patients who have always associated the procedure with agony. Technology today allows for painless procedures that could only be dreamed about twenty years ago.
Tip Five: Medicare Rebates on Sleep Dentistry Exist
I’ll be honest: 99.9% of the time a patient who wants sleep dentistry sits in my chair for the first time, by the end of the initial consultation, they feel calm enough to opt out of it. Trust between a doctor and a patient can ease even the most troubled minds. When you find a dentist who has your best interests at heart, you’ll know it. However, if you still want to talk about sedation options, whether that be light oral sedation or general anaesthetic (imagine sleeping through your procedures!) there are budget-friendly options. Medicare even offers rebates for most patients for twilight dentistry.
Finally, Tip Six: Practice Makes Perfect
If there’s one tip I have for my scared patients, it’s to simply show up to your first appointment. The first step is the hardest. Routine check-ups mean less frequent, costly, and invasive procedures. Dentistry may be a chore, but once you get over that initial fear, routine cleans are a breeze. The healthier your teeth are, the less you have to see us! Dentistry may be the only profession where we hope to see our customers spend less money and time with us every appointment! Prevention is the end goal, so we strive to get your smile back to picture-perfect health.
So, my dear patient, please make the phone call today. We understand, we want to help, and we want to see you smiling again. Truly.
Helen Voronina is a BDSc from the University of Melbourne. She practices at Dr. Helen’s Dental & Implant Studio in Melbourne’s Eastern Suburbs. She has over a decade of experience in treating patients with dental phobias at her Prahran East surgical clinic.