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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Bedside Manner

This week I was lucky enough to have not one but two trips to the dentist! Like many people, the advent of Covid meant that when the calendar turned to 2023, I'd gone over 3 years without a checkup, so in January, after several months of chasing, I managed to get an appointment. The checkup identified a small filling required, as well as a trip to the hygienist for a scale and polish which I'd expected and, in truth, quite enjoy!

The checkup itself was rapid. Lie back, dentist jabs at your teeth with a pokey stick for about 30 seconds while shouting (possibly) made up words to his assistant, x-rays which take a minute or less, 'you need a filling - the girls at the reception will book it in. thanks', out the door.

Now, in some ways, spending as little time as possible in the dentists chair seems like a good thing. It's not a place that many of us relish being, but on this occasion, it had been such a long time since I was in that seat, that I wanted a few things. Firstly, I wanted to feel like the dentist was being thorough. And a fast turnaround never gives that feeling. And secondly, I wanted to ask a few questions and to be listened to. I have a couple of sensitive areas, some questions about my flossing regimen, an old filling that feels raggedy and I wanted an opinion on. There was no opportunity for these things to be discussed. There was, however, time for him to pepper me with a few questions about what I drink and then scold me for my love of tea (ten gallons per day) and Coke Zero (I told him 2 cans a day, it's probably 3-4 but I'd already had a telling off for the tea).

The truth is, while the dentist in question is clearly skilled in the practice of dentistry, his bedside manner is, in a word, shite.

When we took my daughter to the same dentist a while back, she had a terrible experience too. She was probably 6 at the time and got a telling off from a scary looking dude, she'd never met, in a facemask. There was no attempt to make her feel comfortable, no accounting for the fact she was tiny and obviously apprehensive, just the same approach; work fast, minimal interaction, give advice in the form of tellings off and get her out the door. Needless to say, she doesn't have positive memories of her trip and, especially in the early part of your life where you've yet to understand the full importance of looking after your teeth and what happens if you don't, anything that makes you reluctant to attend a dentist is a bad thing.

Anyone who has tried to join a dentist in the UK lately will know that there are limited options and more and more are only taking on private patients, presumably to make up for losses incurred during the Covid shutdown. I ended up going private for my treatments this time, purely because the waiting lists were months for NHS patients but far shorter for private appointments. Remarkable that there were slots which were magically open when the cost went from £0 to £155, but that's probably a discussion for another day! Ultimately, what this means is that there's no real external incentive for this dentist to improve his bedside manner, because he's got a captive audience, a full diary and patients with little real choice.

In Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, the author stated that studies of medical malpractice lawsuits in the US show no correlation between the number of mistakes that a medical professional makes and the likelihood that they get sued. What they did find however, was a link between the amount of time that a medical professional spends chatting to his or her patients and the frequency with which they get sued. It turned out that the doctors who spent the least time talking to their patients were sued with the highest frequency. Evidence that our bedside manner and the care we show can change people's perceptions about our intent. When we give those indicators that we care, by being attentive, people give us the benefit of the doubt that we really do.

There could, of course, be an internal incentive for the dentist to change. Some people are much more attuned to the impact they have on others and some care more than others about it. When I visited the hygienist later in the week, my experience was quite the opposite. She was warm, friendly, talked me through what was going to happen, ensured throughout that I was still happy and comfortable and asked if I had any questions before and after the treatment. I always like the feeling after visiting a hygienist but the experience itself was great too, on this occasion. Let's not forget that the same circumstances which mean the dentist has no external incentive to have a good bedside manner and make his patients comfortable apply equally to the hygienist. She could be just as curt and offer the same conveyor belt experience, but she chose not to.

For most of us, we don't have the luxury of a captive audience. Customers and clients could go elsewhere and our team members could leave and find another job, often with better pay and conditions. That creates the external push for us to think about our impact, but ultimately, those external factors will only ever push us so far. To have a great bedside manner with our customers and staff, it really comes down to whether we want to. Whether we care about them and whether we show it.

There's a lesson for me too, in all of this. I was out of practice with having not been in such a long time, but the next time I go for a checkup, I'll be much better prepared and I'll indicate up front that I have a few questions I'd like answers to. Perhaps he'd have been happy to answer them, but I didn't let him know I had any and he didn't ask. We all have room for improvement.

I'd love to know your experiences of people showing they care, even when they didn't have to!

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