Dental danger: Most dentists have experienced physical, verbal aggression from patients

NEW YORK — When many people think about the dentist, their first reaction is probably fear. Big drills, needles, and the pain of oral surgery is enough to give the bravest person a little fright. Unfortunately, a new study finds many patients are actually getting angry in the dentist chair and taking their frustrations out on health care workers. Researchers from New York University find more than half of all dentists surveyed say they’ve been physically or verbally abused in their careers.

The study by NYU College of Dentistry reveals 55 percent of dentists have suffered verbal aggression from a patient in the last year. Nearly one in four have experienced physical aggression from an upset patient.

Researchers polled 98 experienced dentists practicing in the New York City area. Each participant had been a dentist for an average of 17 years. The survey asked the health care workers about various forms of aggression including physical (being pushed or kicked), verbal (being insulted or cursed at), and reputational (being threatened with a lawsuit or having negative comments posted about them online).

‘Dentistry rife with situations that can elicit strong negative emotions’

Overall, the rates of aggression are even higher when looking back further than the last 12 months. Nearly half (45.5%) said they’ve been physically attacked by a patient during their career. A staggering 74 percent of dentists have been verbally abused and 68.7 percent have suffered reputational aggression.

“Dentistry is rife with situations that can elicit strong negative emotions, such as fear, pain, distrust, and anger. Many patients also experience high levels of anxiety and vulnerability, which may increase negative responses or aggression,” says lead study author Kimberly Rhoades in a university release.

“Establishing that aggression toward dentists is a problem and how often it occurs can help us develop interventions to prevent aggression in dental practices.”

Violence towards health care workers is not a new trend

Study authors say workplace aggression involving patients and health care professionals is a common problem. Violent incidents in a medical setting finish second only to law enforcement situations in the United States. Until now, the NYU team says there haven’t been any studies specifically focusing on dentists in the U.S.

Researchers add there have only been four such studies on aggression in dental offices in other countries. In America, there are approximately 200,000 people in the dental profession.

The results did not vary based on the sex, age, race, or experience of the dentists surveyed. Rates of aggression also remained constant regardless of how many clients each respective dentist saw. The researchers did notice there seems to be less aggression towards a trained dentist than dental students. Compared to a previous report looking at patient anger towards dental students, experienced professionals receive significantly less verbal abuse (55% versus 86%).

The NYU team notes a larger, nationwide study is needed to see how these rates look across the United States. This may give health care workers better information on how to train for and de-escalate patient aggression in the future.

The study appears in the Journal of the American Dental Association.

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