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NYU research: Most dentists have experienced aggression from patients

Study said to be first to describe rates of physical, verbal, reputational aggression toward practitioners

November 10, 2020 New York — About half of U.S. dentists experienced verbal or reputational aggression from patients within the past year, with nearly a quarter having endured physical aggression, according to a study led by researchers at the New York University College of Dentistry.
 
The study was published in the October issue of The Journal of the American Dental Association.

Researchers said it was the first study to document aggression toward U.S. dentists, according to an NYU news release.
 
“Workplace violence toward health care professionals is both widespread and widely overlooked,” said Kimberly A. Rhoades, Ph.D., a research scientist at the NYU College of Dentistry and the study’s lead author, in the release. “The purpose of this study was to provide an initial estimate of rates of patient aggression in dental practices in the United States.”
 
Dr. Rhoades and her fellow researchers surveyed 98 practicing dentists in the metropolitan area of New York City, with the dentists working an average of 17 years.

The dentists filled out a survey asking whether they had experienced any of 21 specific types of aggressive behaviors from their patients, including types of physical, verbal and reputational (e.g., threats of lawsuits or posting nasty comments on social media) aggression.
 
Many dentists reported experiencing aggression from patients in the past year, including physical (22%), verbal (55%) and reputational (44%) aggression.

An even larger proportion of dentists surveyed were subjected to physical (46%), verbal (74%) and reputational (69%) 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, according to the study.
 
The rates of physical and reputational aggression toward dentists were similar to those from a similar study by NYU researchers of aggression toward dental students published earlier this year in the Journal of Dental Education. However, dentists experienced less verbal aggression from patients than dental students (55% versus 86%), indicating that additional experience might reduce the risk of verbal aggression.
 
“Dentistry is rife with situations that can elicit strong negative emotions, such as fear, pain, distrust and anger,” said Dr. Rhoades. “Many patients also experience high levels of anxiety and vulnerability, which may increase negative responses or aggression. Establishing that aggression toward dentists is a problem and how often it occurs can help us develop interventions to prevent aggression in dental practices.”
 
The researchers note that while further studies are warranted, it may be wise for dental practices to consider implementing training on strategies on how to handle workplace violence. Training could include how to prevent patient aggression and manage or de-escalate aggression when it does occur.