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The importance of trust

Sept. 7, 2021
Only six out of 10 Americans trust their dentist. Carol Dahlke, MDH, BS, RDH, RF, explains how you can instill trust in your team and in your patients so they feel how important you think they are.

In the April 2020 Gallup Trust in Honesty and Ethics poll,¹ dentists ranked fifth behind nurses, engineers, medical doctors, and pharmacists. Sixty-one percent of Americans say that dentists’ honesty and ethical standards are high. Six out of 10 Americans trust their dentist. No wonder treatment acceptance is low in many practices.

Consider this scenario: Charlotte has not been to the dentist in more than five years. She is an entrepreneur with two small daughters. Her dentist retired three years ago, and she has been asking her neighbors on social media for referrals. Charlotte decided to see Dr. Tanner. Her neighbors have talked favorably about him, and he has good Google reviews.

As she’s driving to her new-patient appointment, she’s wondering: Will I like the dentist? His website was very professional, her neighbors said he was “nice,” and he is active in several dental organizations. Other than that, Charlotte knows little about Dr. Tanner. She wonders: Can I trust him with my oral health? Can I trust him with my family’s care?

Trust is a word that holds a lot of meaning. We trust drivers on the road that they will obey the traffic laws so we can get safely home to our loved ones. We trust our team to treat our patients the way we trained them to, and, in turn, our team members trust that they will get paid for their commitment to us. The decisions we make are grounded in trust.

According to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, authors of Begin with Trust,2 trust has three core drivers: authenticity, logic, and empathy. When trust is lost, or maybe never gained, it can typically be traced back to a breakdown (or wobble) in one of these drivers. Trust impacts treatment that patients choose to accept, the retention of team members, and especially the financial aspect of a dental practice. Trust is the foundation for everything we do.


Authenticity is the ability for others to experience the real you. Dentists who have completely separate personal and professional personas can be challenging to get to know. When a doctor and a patient have commonalities and discover this together, the level of patient satisfaction increases along with the level of trust. If team members experience only the professional side of their dentist, an invisible wall can form. This happens slowly, and oftentimes it is an older doctor who says that this is what they were told to do many years ago. We live in a world where pivoting to what is important to others is essential to thrive. People have a strong tendency to determine whether you are authentic in just a moment.

Team turnover, potential loss of current patients, or lack of new-patient referrals are all likely when authenticity is in wobble. A subtle way to change this would be to post photos of the doctor’s hobbies, family, or pets in the office and on the practice website. This is a wonderful opportunity for patients to get a feel about the doctor before they even arrive for their visit. Softening the professional cadence with team members and conversing with them at random is a good place to start.


Logic is when people know your competence and judgment are sound. One way to help patients see your competence is to have them codiscover their dental conditions. This is a simple way for patients to see what you see and wonder how to treat the condition before you even recommend treatment. Patients can learn what their conditions are when you do. Codiscovery can be a simple way to motivate patients to choose health over the consequences of disease. When including patients by educating them about the tooth numbering system and comparing their dental disease to dental health, the dentist will see an increase in case acceptance. Your patients will be healthier overall, and you will see fewer emergences. If you have a wobble in this area, it may be a matter of changing the approach you are taking with your patients.


Empathy is the third driver. Patients and team members need to feel that you care about them and their success. Caring is at our core, but stress can often hide empathy. Many high-achieving leaders struggle with empathy as this is the most common wobble. The demands on your time can sometimes feel like they are too much to handle. If people think you care more about yourself than you do about them, they will not trust you.

Sometimes our team members may not be as similarly motivated or might take longer to understand what they need to do, and the dentist can become impatient. Micromanaging situations because “no one does it as well” or using a certain tone of voice will tell your team that you don’t believe they know what they’re doing. The messages you send may not be intentional, but new team members have no reference and, as such, this can be damaging.

Here are some ways to increase the ways you show empathy. We live in a world of instant communication; it creates situations that we need to disperse. Think about leaving your cell phone in your office and only checking it at lunchtime. Have your family call the practice if there is an emergency and they need to speak with you. Cell phones can assert self-importance, and the people who might need us the most in our practice may view the distraction negatively. Resist the urge to look at your wristwatch when it dings you. Be fully present when you are at your practice. Not only will your team benefit, but so will your patients. You won’t be distracted, and you may even finish earlier since you are focused on the task at hand. Remember to look up at the person in front of you. Let them feel how important you think they are.

This is how trust begins.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the September 2021 print edition of Dental Economics.


  • Honesty/ethics in professions. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/1654/Honesty-Ethics-Professions.aspx
  • Frei FX, Morriss A. Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You. Harvard Business Review Press; 2020.

    Carol Dahlke, MDH, RDH, RF, is president and founder of Optimum Dental Consulting and Coaching. She is passionate about bringing joy back to dentists who are not feeling it. Dahlke practiced clinical dental hygiene for 26 years and provided business and clinical consulting in general dentistry and periodontics throughout the US and Canada prior to starting her own company. She teaches periodontology technique to first-year dental students at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. Contact her at [email protected].

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