Prioritizing air quality in your practice is about more than protecting the health and wellness of your team. It’s also a much-overlooked component of a pleasant patient experience.

“NOSE BLINDNESS” is the term that olfactory scientists use to describe becoming so accustomed to a scent that you’re no longer aware of it. Ever walked into someone’s home that reeks of wet dog, or maybe years and years of slow-simmering quarts of cabbage soup? Chances are they don’t even notice it, but you sure do. Now imagine you’re a patient walking into a practice and encountering a similarly off-putting aroma, whether from common dental materials or cleaning chemicals, or maybe just a general staleness. What impact do you think that has?

Air quality is one of the least prioritized aspects of health and safety in the practice of dentistry. While we all know why water-line cleanliness is standardized and enforced, for some reason, there are no standards whatsoever for air quality. Yet there are tons of airborne germs that can make you very sick. In addition, ethanol, propanol and formaldehyde are just some of the volatile nasties released over the course of a normal day. It’s becoming more commonly acknowledged that chemicals and particulates of all kinds can cause long-term health effects and contribute to your generally feeling lousy. Clean air in your practice is just as important as clean water.

Air purification helps control both contaminants and odors. Smell affects perception at a primal level, even more than sight. Academics have said that seeing people and things doesn’t necessarily prompt specific memories, but smells are much more powerful. In fact, if a certain smell is connected to a memory but you never run across that scent again, it’s likely the memory associated with it will never be triggered.

We all want patients to feel welcome and at ease when they enter health-care settings, especially ones like dental practices where a significant number of people experience specific anxieties. The last thing you want to do is elicit an unpleasant emotional response that can set the tone for a negative patient experience that you and your team are then forced to deal with. We generally associate musty smells and chemical odors with places we don’t want to be.

By the same token, the smells in your practice don’t just evoke memories in your patients’ pasts; they also create new memories tied to their visits. Unpleasant odors by themselves are off-putting, but if patients entering your practice are met with smells that have conditioned them over time to expect a less-than-desirable visit, that can have a negative effect on everything from patient attitudes and anxiety to retention and, ultimately, your ability to generate recommendations and positive reviews. Odors can even be so subtle as to leave patients wondering why they’re not feeling happy about their visits.

Luckily, this is all highly solvable. A multilayered approach to air quality can be a simple part of new construction, but it can also be a relatively easy and cost-effective retrofit. While a certified HVAC technician may be able to optimize your ambient air exchanges, most systems are capable of turning over air only two to three times per hour as opposed to the six to 12 times considered optimal for health-care environments. But the best solution is to combine ambient capture with source capture that deals with patient aerosols at the source, before they can spread and create a bigger challenge for your ambient systems. (Your HVE can deal with some of this, but not all.)

From water lines to surface disinfection, dentistry is accustomed to dealing with threats that aren’t visible to the naked eye. Air quality
is the next frontier in optimizing your health and that of your team while helping create a better, safer patient experience that promotes retention and encourages referrals.

MELISSA SPRAU, NCIDQ manages Benco Dental’s team of CenterPoint designers. A graduate of Moore College of Art & Design, she has more than 12 years’ experience in facilities planning for a large health-care system and interior design with several architecture firms.