Words Matter: How Positive Language Can Improve Patient Relationships

a dentist meets with a patient and understands how positive language will improve their relationship


We’ve heard our entire lives that the words we use matter. And when it comes to keeping patients in chairs, this adage is especially true. Patients are more likely to return to a practice where they feel comfortable and studies show the use of language plays a significant role.

When considering how we communicate with patients, it is important to keep their perspectives front and center. For example, they do not have years of dental education under their belts and may be confused by common medical lingo. In addition, they also are weighing factors like cost and accessibility when deciding on the kind of oral health care they need.

To be clear, this certainly does not mean withholding information or sugarcoating the truth. But by practicing empathy and reframing the narrative with positive language, you can meet the patient at their level and gain their trust.

In this article, we’re going to explore some examples of how to be mindful when communicating with patients.

Focus on options, not just cost

One of the biggest barriers to oral health care is the burden of cost left to patients, especially if they do not have insurance. Using language like “This will be expensive” sounds absolute and may discourage them from following through on the service or procedure. Rather than focus solely on the price, explain how they can pay for it. Saying “we have financing options” lets them know that you understand the higher cost may have a greater effect on their budget. You can then work with them on a payment plan or other dental savings options.

Mind your verbs

Transparency is important and patients should understand what work is being done. However, it is also crucial to ensure you are not painting an image of an experience the patient would rather avoid. For instance, using words like “pull” or “scrape” may make the patient cringe, as those are generally verbs associated with unpleasant feelings. Instead, try more generic language like “remove” or “clean,” which still explains the work being done without generating anxiety.

Speak plainly

Even if you think a patient might understand the meaning of a word or phrase, it is best to think about a different way to explain it. For example, a negative result usually means something positive in the medical world, but the use of the word “negative” is usually a bad thing elsewhere. Likewise, there is a significant knowledge gap in how patients understand their insurance. (For instance,  a recent study revealed that 36% of surveyed patients thought visiting an in-network provider would increase costs.) So, meet patients at their level and explain things in a way that has them leaving your office armed with the knowledge and confidence they need to keep coming back.

The bottom line: The words we use matter. Be mindful of how you explain procedures and cost: meet the patient at their level. Doing so will build trust and give them confidence in your practice.