How the right words can help you to communicate with patients when their expectations become unrealistic.

Dentist having conversation with patient

A great dental professional possesses a combination of particular attributes, skills and behaviours. Among these assets is the ability to maximise patient satisfaction and minimise the risk of complaints and claims. In this context, ‘what you say and how you say it’ is important.

Communication is key
Research shows that only a small percentage of patients who suffer an adverse outcome in dental care will lodge a complaint or claim, and that the majority of complaint investigations find no error. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that it is not always clinical error that can lead to a patient complaint, with poor communication being a common contributor.

Enhanced skills
One of the most important communication skills is the ability to elicit and manage patient expectations. Patient expectations of modern dentistry have increased rapidly over recent years. These are often shaped by the media, dental practice marketing and information downloaded from the internet. These sources of information are not always accurate, and we are worried that that patient expectations have risen faster than the technical advances that have actually been achieved.
From Dental Protection’s own experience, it is sobering to consider that despite the advances in dental care, there has also been an increase in patients lodging complaints that express their dissatisfaction with the treating dentist. This is why it is so important to take the time to build a relationship with the patient that will optimise effective two-way communication.

It is important that dental professionals master the communication skills required to effectively manage patient expectations. It is very hard, however, to effectively manage patient expectations if you are not aware of them.
Understanding the patient’s expectations before providing dental treatment is both good practice and an effective risk management strategy. Your ability to identify and understand what they expect from your treatment is a prerequisite to ensure that you both agree to the planned treatment and to reduce your risk before any patient dissatisfaction occurs.
If unrealistic expectations are discovered before starting treatment, the next step is to speak to the patient about their expectations, options and possible outcomes. If this discussion proves ineffective, further action is needed. If treatment is not urgent, there is time to consider the options and take some potentially risk-reducing steps, including:

  • deferring treatment and offering to discuss the matter further with the patient at a future date;
  • providing patient access to additional information or explanation such as leaflets, educational videos or reliable websites that provide information about realistic outcomes of treatment options;
  • suggesting that the patient seek a second opinion; and,
    deciding not to treat the patient because of repeated, unsuccessful attempts to modify unrealistic expectations.

Dental Protection provides workshops at different locations in Ireland to help you to improve your own communication skills. For more details or to book online please visit

Dr Sue Boynton

Dr Sue Boynton
Head of Dental Services for
Dental Protection in Ireland