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N Z Dent J. 2014 Sep;110(3):98-104.

Empathy in the dentist-patient relationship: review and application.



A review of psychology, dental, and medical literature aimed to identify key variables for an ideal dentist-patient relationship. When empathy surfaced as the key positive variable, a further aim, which became the aim of this paper, was to explore how empathy could be intentionally applied.


An online database search, limited to judgementally selected target-words, was conducted for peer-reviewed papers on the dentist-patient relationship. Review guidelines from the American Psychological Association were used to clarify concepts, identify where most work was focussed, and to explore the superiority of any approach to the topic, over another.


The distinction between instrumental (information) and affective (emotional) communication was important with empathy being the key variable. Empathy was seen clearly to facilitate improved communication and the experience of dentistry for patient and practitioner alike. Empathy was positively associated with negotiated treatment plans, treatment adherence, increased patient satisfaction, and reduced dental anxiety. However, the concept of empathy was rarely operationally defined, or empirically measured. At best it was a scale score or a theme in qualitative data analysis. As such, applied empathy is discussed as a perceived concept. Dental school curricula and patient request forms were found to have the greatest potential to train dentists to convey empathy, and for patients to perceive empathy.


Future directions are proposed, to apply empathy in the dentist-patient relationship through an integrated model of patient-centred communication.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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