Transforming Dental Anxiety into Practice Growth: Featuring Jessica Martin of Martin Management Solutions
Some people don’t think twice about an upcoming dental appointment. For a majority of others, though, it can feel like they’re being tasked with slaying a relentless sensory overload dragon.
The feeling and smell of prophy paste on their teeth, the bright lights shining in their face, the uncomfortable sensation of the suction tube, the taste of latex gloves in their mouth, the piercing whirr of the drill – it can be almost too much for some to handle. And if you’re a dentist who’s experiencing all of this on a daily basis, it might be difficult to put yourself in their very nervous shoes.
Perhaps no one understands this better than Jessica Martin, who on her journey to help differentiate Martin Dental from other practices in the saturated market of Eau Claire, WI, realized the key to doing so was to address these sensory issues using her background and expertise as a school psychologist. Since employing these strategies, her practice has seen tremendous growth, with monthly new patient numbers quadrupling, referrals steadily climbing, and cancellations drastically dropping – just to name a few! 💁♀️
She now helps other practices grow by helping them develop strategies to reduce patient anxiety and discomfort while teaching them to understand the psychology of dentistry to better accommodate patients with sensitivities and past dental traumas.
I caught up with Jessica to discuss what practices can gain from factoring in the impact dental anxiety could be having on their growth.
Katie: How do you respond to dentists who might argue that the noises, sounds, and smells associated with dental visits are inevitable?
Jessica: “For one, those in dentistry tend to be desensitized to the sensations a patient has because they come into this environment every day. They’re used to the sound of the drill and the smell of the anesthetic, so they may not understand the impact it’s having. Showing compassion to others who aren’t desensitized is really simple, and [we should] remove that negative sensory moment if we know it usually bothers people. To me, it almost feels ethical.
If a doctor knows how to give a shot in a painful way and a non-painful way, isn’t it their ethical obligation to use the non-painful way? But some dental professionals don’t realize how powerful these little details are, and I think once they see it as powerful, they realize – why not offer noise-canceling headphones to patients or cover the instrument tray if a patient is scared of needles?
Why wouldn’t we want to do it better so that people aren’t on-edge?”
Katie: With that being said, do you think it’s reasonable to assume that every patient likely has some degree of dental anxiety and that’s reason enough to consider making their dental experience more hospitable?
Jessica: “Well, 70% of people have some form of dental aversion or anxiety. The rest likely aren’t anxious but they’re not excited about dental visits or aren’t looking forward to them. There’s a component of it that you tolerate and we all have different tolerances for sensory [experiences].
For example, some people have to shower at night before they get into bed or they won’t feel comfortable in their clean sheets. Others have to wash their hands numerous times a day after certain activities. Certain sounds, like nails on a chalkboard, bother most people but not everybody.
So we all have different tolerances and the dental experience tends to assault most of the sensory intolerances people have. You’ll find the outliers who don’t mind it, but I would say the majority of people are worth the investment because even if they’re not averse to something, if we can make it better, it’s better. You’re not ever losing and I think what you gain from it in terms of attracting ideal patients that are looking for a better overall dental experience is so much more lucrative than not doing it.”
Katie: In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception that most dental professionals have about dental anxiety?
Jessica: “They don’t realize what an impact it’s having on their practice and that their patients are likely just masking their fear and putting up a front.
I actually once polled some longtime patients of Martin Dental to see how many were experiencing dental anxiety and the results left our team really surprised at how many people said they were anxious – they’re just good at hiding it.
So if practices were able to address this, it could solve a lot of problems they might have (like last minute cancellations) because people are anxiously avoiding the dentist. They’re also less likely to accept treatment because who wants to pay for what they see as torture, basically? They don’t want to be there and they’re going to avoid getting the treatment they need.
When practices are looking to get new patients, they’ll often do things like giveaways or discounts, but if they could just address the underlying anxiety that the typical patient probably has, those people are going to tell everyone they know and they’re going to attract some organic growth from just doing dentistry better.
If someone they know and love has vouched for your practice because they made a huge difference in their life, that’s an easier way to keep a patient – you just have to keep being great! If you’ve attracted new patients by flashing a deal, you’re probably going to have to keep them that way by offering more deals, so it’s a slippery slope.”
Katie: What are some small changes a practice could start making right now that would help ease patient anxiety?
Jessica: “People exude how they’re feeling without realizing it, so if your team is rushing around or unprepared for an appointment, the patient is probably going to feel that.
If they’re running behind and getting worked up about it, they have to figure out how to calm their own body before they can interact with a patient in a way that’s not going to transfer that stress. I think recognizing the impact that their energy might have on an already anxious patient is really important.
Also, picking up on a patient's nonverbal cues that they might be anxious and taking a moment to ask, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you get more comfortable?’ If they’re fidgeting or sweating, you don’t have to outright acknowledge that they clearly look anxious, but offering them encouragement is great! If a patient does share that they’re nervous, really give them the assurance that your team cares.
Those are little things that you can just tune into and be energetically different. And it doesn’t cost anything, it’s just awareness.”
Katie: I know you’ve helped lots of practices across the country – can you share one of your favorite success stories?
Jessica: “I actually worked with a practice that had three doctors, but they each had their own individual office, all in one building. They all ran under the same name but one of them was really excited about focusing on dental anxiety and doing more for patients in that regard – the other two, not so much.
So I trained only one of the teams and what’s been really interesting about following this client is watching the growth of this practice compared to the other two and seeing that the one addressing dental anxiety is gaining a lot more new patients, and is overall just doing better than the other two.
Even within the same building, with the same look, the same colors and decor – you can see the difference when a dental team can really adequately address dental anxiety versus a team that’s not invested in it.”