Most dentists have experienced aggression from patients

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aggressive dental patients

Roughly half of US dentists experienced verbal or reputational aggression by patients in the past year, and nearly one in four endured physical aggression, according to a new study led by US researchers.  

The study, published in the Journal of the American Dental Association, is the first to document aggression toward dentists in the United States.

Workplace aggression toward health care professionals is common, with health care settings second only to law enforcement in the rate of violent incidents. However, there are no studies of aggression toward dentists in the US—a workforce of 200,000—and only four studies have been conducted in other countries.  

“Workplace violence toward health care professionals is both widespread and widely overlooked,” said Kimberly Rhoades at NYU College of Dentistry and the study’s lead author.

“The purpose of this study was to provide an initial estimate of rates of patient aggression in dental practices in the United States.”

Rhoades and her colleagues surveyed 98 dentists practising in the New York City metropolitan area; the dentists had been working an average of 17 years. Participants completed a confidential online survey assessing whether they had experienced any of 21 specific types of aggressive behaviours from their patients, including types of physical, verbal, and reputational aggression.

A substantial proportion of dentists reported experiencing aggression from patients in the past year. An even larger proportion of dentists surveyed were subjected to aggression at some point during their career. These rates of patient aggression toward dentists are high and comparable with those reported in other health care settings.  

Rates of aggression did not differ by dentists’ sex, race, ethnicity, specialty, age, years practicing, or average number of patients treated per day.

The rates of physical and reputational aggression toward dentists were similar to those from a parallel study by NYU researchers of aggression toward dental students published earlier this year in the Journal of Dental Education. However, practising dentists experienced less verbal aggression from patients than dental students, suggesting that additional experience may reduce the risk of verbal 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,” Rhoades said. 

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

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