Although dentists often prioritize technical skill, patients generally aren’t able to evaluate differences in skill and they tend to care much more about how a dentist makes them feel. This central insight was one of fourth-year dental student Hannah Klaassen’s findings from her student research project, which she began four years ago and published in 2020 in the Journal of Dental Education.
Klaassen began the project during her first year of dental school as a part of the Dental Student Research Program, which provides opportunities for students to learn about and conduct cutting-edge research in the oral sciences.
The College of Dentistry had been consistently collecting open-ended patient feedback after visits, and Klaassen used these responses as the basis for her study.
“Taking patient feedback in their own words is helpful for identifying what patients notice and what aspects of patient care are positive and what isn’t,” Klaassen said.
After reading through the comments, Klaassen developed a coding system that allowed her to group and classify similar kinds of responses.
In particular, Klaassen noted that patients are particularly interested in (1) the emotional care they felt at an appointment, (2) the personal connections they made with staff, (3) the clear communication of expectations, and (4) clarity of communication between provider and patient and across the various departments and front desk teams at the College of Dentistry.
“Communication is what makes or breaks the patient experience, and all other central areas of concern were intertwined and related to that. Patients care less about technical skills and more about how we make them feel,” Klaassen explained.
In October 2019, Hannah Klaassen, who was a third-year dental student then, presented this research project at a Noon Presentation offered to the entire college.
Dr. Mike Kanellis, associate dean of clinics at the College of Dentistry, said of the presentation, “It is very interesting and timely.”
The study was published in the Journal of Dental Education in September 2020.
Klaassen’s experience as a student researcher has been formative for her. She initially started conducting research because she was interested in specializing after dental school, and she didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on her.
“This research has given me an outsider and patient perspective on dentistry that I wouldn’t have known, and that’s invaluable,” Klaassen said. She added, “I hope to continue incorporating that into my own practice going forward and analyzing patient feedback in private practices. I think there is a lot we can learn from our patients.”
More broadly, the focus on research at Iowa has made a big difference for Klaassen too. Klaassen “100%” recommends that students get involved in the Student Research Program.
Speaking of her experience as an author going through an extensive review process for publication, Klaassen said, “I’m much more critical now, and I don’t just accept things at face value. The curriculum at Iowa on critical thinking and research is good, but my research experience in the Student Research Program complements it very well.”
“You don’t understand how much it will impact you,” she added.
And one of the biggest impacts for Klaassen has been having Dr. Marchini as a mentor.
Speaking of Dr. Marchini, Klaassen said, “There are a hundred different ways that he helped me. He gave me the skills for conducting research and publishing it, but he also gives me great advice about patients and applying research to particular cases, especially during third-year rotations and treatment planning.”
Not content to rest on her laurels, Klaassen is working on another research project examining how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected dental student stress levels.