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A simple guide to delivering bad news to patients

Breaking bad news to a patient will always be one of the more unpleasant aspects of working in the dental profession.

But it can get easier if you make a concerted effort to get better at it.

Set the stage

Give patients a chance to brace themselves prior to receiving the news. A simple, “Unfortunately, I’ve got some bad news for you…” and a pause will suffice. Don’t surprise your patients unduly or make them wait and stew in suspense.

Be clear

Don’t beat around the bush or sugarcoat. When it comes to dentistry, the truth is paramount to piecing together the most effective action plan moving forward. Be compassionate and empathetic but above all else, be straightforward and honest.

Give the patient time to absorb the news

Your natural reaction following the delivery of bad news is to scramble to find good news to pile on top of it. In dentistry, this good news is generally in the form of treatment options.

Instead of launching into a long explanation of how you can fix the problem, stop speaking and allow your patient to react. Remember that your desire to speak at this time is a defense mechanism to calm your own anxiety and not the patient’s. Give the patient time to ask questions before diving into the next step.

Lay out treatment options

Always be realistic when outlining treatment opportunities. Inspire hope without setting false expectations. Inform the patient of what will likely happen should they refuse further treatment.

Try to understand each individual patient’s point of view

Bad news comes in all shapes and sizes, just like patients. From financial outlay to pain to cosmetic issues or loss of function, different people react differently to different types of bad news. Your patients will have different worries and types of questions. Be supportive of everyone who is upset after hearing their diagnosis or prognosis.