First Impressions Count

Dr. Raj DK Dhaliwal
Dentist, Dento-Legal Advisor and Contributing Author

It is well known that first impressions count. The question arises are these first impressions important in healthcare? Do our verbal and non-verbal communications matter to our patients?

Interestingly studies have shown that healthcare practitioners who have a good rapport with their patients and have made a good impression are less likely to receive a complaint and the involvement of a third party, such as a regulator or legal representatives¹.

To build up this rapport we need to concentrate on our communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal. A recent HCCC report highlighted that one of the commonest reasons patients raise a complaint against a health practitioner is related to communication².

How can we ensure that we start off on the right foot and make that important first impression?

Would you want to be a patient at your practice?

When does this first impression begin?

Our patient’s perception of the care they are going to receive is actually starting to be formed before they actually meet us. In most instances, the first contact they will have with you and the team is when they make their initial appointment either by telephone or online. This initial impression is followed by their assessment when they arrive at the practice. A useful exercise to undertake is to walk into your practice with the eyes of a patient? Would you wish to be a patient here?

“Studies have shown that healthcare practitioners who have a good rapport with their patients and have made a good impression are less likely to receive a complaint and the involvement of a third party, such as a regulator or legal representatives¹”

First impression of the dental practitioner

I would like to concentrate on the first impression we make as practitioners to our patients. I often ask young practitioners if they go out and meet and greet their patients from the waiting room? Many of our patients are anxious when they come to visit us, by taking the time to go out and greet them could help to alleviate their anxiety? It’s an ideal opportunity to make general conversation and put our patient’s at ease. It also gives you an opportunity to step out of the clinical environment and begin a new journey with your next patient.

First impressions and facial expressions

More importantly by going out to receive your patients in a non clinical environment allows them to concentrate on you rather than the surroundings of the clinic.

Facial expressions are a universal language of expression.

A warm smile, making eye contact is reassuring for our patients. As the saying goes a smile is infectious and will help to enhance the rapport we wish to build with our patients. This rapport will lead to trust and in time our patients working with us to care for their health.


Greeting our patients

We‘ve touched on our non-verbal communication. Let’s consider how we will greet our patients? Are we going to be formal and use their title and surname or greet them informally by their first name, bearing in mind cultural sensitivities. Various studies have been conducted and in my experience older patients on the first meeting wish to be addressed more formally. I’ve been in a situation where a colleague addressed an older patient by her first name.  To which she replied, ”My name is Mrs Taylor and I’m not related to you or your acquaintance so please don’t call me Sue.” With this in mind perhaps a formal greeting on the first encounter.  Then ask your patient how they would wish to be greeted. It’s important that you remember to introduce yourself.  To maintain the equality in the relationship, address yourself using the same greeting that you used for your patient.  For example, if you used your patient’s first name then introduce yourself in the same manner.

First impressions do count

I’ve focused on a few simple steps that in our busy lives in practice we can often forget to address. Many practitioners often cite that they do not have the time to go and meet and greet their patients. It actually takes no longer than couple of minutes and can go a long way to setting up an ideal first impression.

1 Ambady N, LaPlante D et al. Surgeons’ tone of voice: A clue to malpractice history. Surgery Vol 132 Number 1 p5-9

2 Health Care Complaints Commission Annual Report 2015-2016 https://www.hccc.nsw.gov.au/Publications/Annual-reports/Default accessed 29th August 2017


After graduating from the University of Birmingham Dental School, England, Dr. Raj DK Dhaliwal BDS LLM MDentSci MRACDS(DPH) MFGDPRCS MAICD undertook research into dental public health, published and presented this research in the UK and internationally and completed a Masters in Dental Science. Raj worked for many years in general dental practice in both inner city and suburban practices.

In 2013, she was awarded an LLM in Healthcare Ethics and Law with Merit from Manchester University. Raj developed her interest in care quality, clinical negligence, consent and confidentiality.

Raj has worked as a dental practice advisor to NHS England and works as a dento-legal advisor both in the UK and more recently in Australia. Since immigrating to Australia she also acts as an examiner for the Australian Dental Council and the Royal Australasian College of Dental Surgeons.


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