World Mental Health Day: Understanding Our Impact on the Wellbeing of Our Patients

Posted Oct 10th, 2020 in the wire, thought leadership, 2020

Dr. Bruce Freeman, Director of Patient Experience, dentalcorp


Today is World Mental Health Day and, under normal circumstances, this would just be another Saturday for most. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, every year, 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem or illness. New research will undoubtedly reveal those numbers have grown exponentially given our current environment.

I have given a lot of thought to the connection between wellbeing and our profession, and how they are inextricably linked, yet not in the most obvious ways. It has been well-established that our mouths are the gateway to our overall health. Recent research has even shown that regular sanative appointments have a positive impact on stemming the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. As oral health professionals, we strive to keep a patient’s oral and overall health in good working order. However, we often lose sight of the opportunity we have to make an even bigger impact on a patient’s emotional wellbeing.

When our patients first come to us, it often marks the beginning of a lasting relationship, founded in empathy and compassion. We may often think it is all about what we do as practitioners, but in the end, how we do our jobs and fully addressing why a patient has come to see us is what allows us to provide the best experience for our patients.

We must always remember to return to first principles and be mindful of the words and tone we use with all patients under our care. A fundamental part of what we do as healthcare providers is truly listening to what our patients have to say and how they feel. When meeting a patient for the first time, I always begin our dialogue with, “Why have you come to see me today?” I then ask to hear their story. Dr. Annie Brewster, a physician facing her own healthcare journey with multiple sclerosis stated that, “there is tremendous healing power in stories – for both the storyteller and for those listening.” Research supports her contention that telling our stories helps improve mental health.  

Additionally, compassionate communication can have a positive impact on patients’ receptiveness to our guidance. One study found that when doctors communicate well, their patients are twice as likely to follow through with their recommendations. Conversely, a study on drug compliance revealed there was a sixfold higher risk of noncompliance when the patient’s psychosocial issues were not addressed.

As an orthodontist, I often see patients in the retention phase of treatment for years, well past what is required. I never tell a patient that there is no need to return again.  I simply say that if they wish to schedule another visit, to please do so. What do we do at these sessions? When I ask to see their retainers, they commonly tell me not to worry, they fit just fine (oftentimes they don’t even bring them in).  We then get down to the real reason for the visit: to chat, catch-up on their lives, and share stories.

Human connectedness can be as therapeutic as medicine. Stephen Porges, the creator of the Polyvagal Theory, stated that “connectedness is a biological imperative. It provides the neurobiological mechanism to link social behaviour and both mental and physical health.” Human connection releases the powerful hormone oxytocin, which facilitates feelings of safety and an ability to be sensitive to others. It further allows for a reduction in fear, anxiety, and inflammation, while helping us avoid the fight-or-flight response when it is not in our best interest. The renowned Harvard Study Of Adult Development assessed the mental health of a group for over 80 years and ultimately concluded that, more than social class, money, or your DNA, it is the close relationships we develop that keep us going. I have spoken with many dentists and allied team members about what they miss most upon retirement. Without question, they all say that it was the relationships they had with their patients that has left a significant void in their lives.

I see dentistry as a process of overcoming and becoming. We help guide our patients to achieving optimal oral health and overall wellbeing, but we also help them overcome associated medical issues, in addition to counseling them on healthy life choices.  We further assist those who entrust us with their health to achieve smiles that are as functional as they are beautiful. We create lasting bonds with our patients and help counsel them through a number of health crises, not all of them physical. Now, more than ever, we serve as a constant in the lives of our patients, someone they can turn to every few months to check-in, talk about life, and of course, gently remind them to floss.


About the Author

Dr. Bruce Freeman is the Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp, helping dentists across Canada achieve clinical success that results in the best experience for their patients.

Bruce is an international lecturer on clinical orthodontics, facial pain, patient experience, and virtual surgical planning. He is the co-director of the Facial Pain Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital. He further directs the Wellness Program for dental residents at Mount Sinai Hospital, emphasizing how self-care leads to the best patient care.

Bruce is an honours graduate of the University of Toronto. He completed the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester and returned to the University of Toronto to complete his diploma in orthodontics and his Master of Science degree in temporomandibular disorders and orofacial pain. He is also a certified yoga instructor with additional training in breathing techniques, meditation, and trauma-informed movement. He can be reached at bruce@drbvf.com.      

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