The dentist’s chair can be an intimidating place, and sometimes that feeling can be heightened if office staff members don’t have the communication tools to make patients feel at ease.
Gig Harbor resident Dr. Bianca Wolf, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound, is doing her part to make sure dental health care providers can better interact with their patients.
Wolf, along with and Dr. Brendan Young, assistant professor of communication at Western Illinois University, and Cynthia O’Toole, clinical assistant professor at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics, collaborated to publish a book geared toward dental students, hygienists and practicing dentists aimed at developing better communication with their patients.
“Communication Skills for Dental Health Care Providers” was a collaborative effort of the three authors, who live in different geographical locations and all have jobs and busy lives.
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“Brendan is in Illinois and Cindy is in Iowa. I’m in Gig Harbor so we Skyped and called and talked about it, and got it done,” said Wolf, adding that the idea for the book started about ten years ago.
All three authors have taught dental students the University of Iowa College of Dentistry.
“Brendan and I both came into the College of Dentistry from the perspective of behavioral sciences, how communication works and what we know happens behaviorally in the health setting,” Wolf said. “I took a spin on it and he came in on my lead. We wanted to offer dental students research grounded information and advice how to best interact with their patients.”
O’Toole was brought in for the clinical perspective.
“The book blends nicely,” Wolf said.
The trio start the book by offering the readers advice on what the basics of interacting are with their patients. The book also addresses recognizing verbal and non verbal communication with patients. The goal of the book is to teach students, dentists and hygienists how to better communicate with their patients in order to provide better dental care.
Many patients feel it is not necessary to discuss their health issues, substance abuse or even partner violence with their dentist, Wolf said.
However, it is important for their dentist to have all the information in order to provide the best care. From the dentist’s perspective, they may find it difficult to bring up personal issues, although they now acknowledge that addressing these issues is important to meeting the patient’s dental needs.
Young acknowledges that a stigma still exists and many patients are fearful of opening up to discuss these issues with their dentist.
“The common perception by dentists is that patients will conceal their behavioral health problems or react negatively to a clinician who asks them about them, so dentists usually don’t ask or don’t follow up adequately and persistently any indicators on health history forms of behavioral health problems,” he said. “The evidence, however, overwhelmingly indicates that patients do want clinicians to ask about behavioral health problems.”
The book consists of 12 chapters and, using researched evidence, offers providers practical strategies to improve patient-provider communication.
“Having worked closely with health faculty and students for many years, we have found that, more often that not, dental professionals are eager to engage in ethical, efficient and health-promoting patient interactions,” Wolf said. “Yet, they may not be fully prepared for all the communicative challenges they will face throughout their careers.”
After teaching communication to dental students, the authors found that there was a lack of up-to-date resources regarding communication with patients. The book can be used both as a text for student education and as a resource for seasoned dental professionals.
Wolf said the hope is that in the future the providers will receive better communication training and provide better care for their patients.
“They won’t come out of school just with their dental training, but they will understand they are fostering relationships with people — not just patients,” she said.
Wolf lives in Gig Harbor with her husband and 2-year-old son. The family enjoys all that Gig Harbor offers, and they attend many events during the holidays.
“We love Washington state for all of the outdoor activities it offers. We kayak and love hiking,” she said.