Uncategorized Usability

NOBODY Likes the Dentist – Or Do They?

An Ethnographic Study of the Behavior of Patients at a Huntsville Dentist’s Office

3stooges Dentists – supposedly nobody likes them until they need them – but is there anything worse than a terrible toothache – even if that means a trip to a dentist? Luckily in Huntsville if you need one, it is hard to turn a corner without bumping into some sort of dental professional. Along with being the “Rocket City” – has anyone else noticed that this city is FILLED with dental practices? I myself have two dear friends who are hygienists (one is my roommate) and one seriously helpful friend who is a dentist, and he graciously allowed me to spend a couple of hours over a few days (one morning and one afternoon, to see if there was a difference in patient mood based on time of day) watching him and his patients in action.


Dental practices are notorious anxiety producers, and this report details the ways in which this anxiety manifests itself in actuality. The dentist I know is a 44 year old male, who has been a practicing for 15 years. Dentists have one of the highest suicide rates of all professions, and my friend does not enjoy his job for the most part. I asked him why one time and he said “Imagine going to a place everyone is unhappy to be everyday.” So I wondered – is a trip to the dentist really as bad as all that? In a typical day, with an average patient load, how many of those patients exhibit outward signs of distress? How many require extra medication in order to alleviate these symptoms? And how often do patients just not show up? Was it the attitude of the patients that cause the lack of joy in the professions? Or maybe it’s just that this guy got into the wrong field.

Sitting in the open space reception area, with both the ability to hear and see patients in each room, I covertly watched as more than 30 patients (average for a typical day in this office) came in for various treatments. Among appointments for this office, patients most often seek care for: routine cleanings, fillings, extractions, root canal therapy, implant placement and restoration, crowns – tooth coverings, dentures and bridges, x-rays, wisdom teeth referrals and orthodontic referrals. An average of two patients a day are included in the schedule for emergency appointments, including toothaches, injuries, and loose or dislodged bridges.

The observations I made denied rather than confirmed the common theory of patients climbing the walls in fear of having a doctor work inside their mouths, and that patients in a dental practice are nervous and miserable to be there.

Among the patients I observed – 15 males and 17 females all between the ages of 14 and 85 – as they were seen by the dentist and hygienist or assistant, I recorded that only 15-20% of these patients felt before the procedure began that they may need medical assistance to endure the treatment, and only 3 of them (all coincidentally women) actually received any sort of nitrous gas or sedatives (all three patients were receiving fillings and one woman brought her own medicine to take). This dental practice also has a fairly aggressive appointment confirmation process, which has decreased the number of “no show” patients to around 2 per day, or 8 per week, which I was told was not bad at all. It was the overall conclusion of this short study, that at least in terms of this practice, patients were, for the most part, not incredibly unhappy or disagreeable, anxious or impossible to deal with – maybe this dentist just needs to get a new job.