Today I had the privilege of seeing a new patient who came in concerned about an area of gingival recession that appeared to her to have been getting worse. She shared with me a story about having recently seen a general dentist, to whom she had been going routinely, who told her she didn’t need to be worried about her gums. As the rest of the story unfolded she shared that she was looking for a new dentist because she had felt her concern was dismissed, even assumed to have been silly. I have been practicing dentistry for long enough that I can imagine in my mind’s eye what happened at the other office. I can even see and hear myself doing something similar over the years.
The challenge is that as dental professionals we become very comfortable with both dental disease and with common dental issues that are not problematic. This comfort often gets in the way of our ability to remember that for each patient their concern is real, it is their mouth or teeth, and they do not have years of experience to tell them something is routine or easily treatable. From things like amalgam tattoos to recession, craze lines and decalcification spots patients get curious and worried over things they notice in their mouths. Often a misplaced smile, or lighthearted attempt to dismiss concern can be inappropriate in response to a patient.
The most important thing I have learned over the years it to first listen fully. The second step is to acknowledge what you heard including the emotional subtext, and ask for verification. I will always take the time to examine the area in question making sure to be thorough. Lastly I will share with the patient my beliefs about what is happening and the information necessary for them to move from fear or concern to comfort. Whether the patient today decides to move forward with grafting or to simply allow us to monitor the area of recession, what I know is she left feeling heard and respected for being proactive about her health.