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3 strategies for fostering connections with dental patients

Sept. 12, 2021
Karen Davis, BSDH, RDH, explains how three distinct strategies have made a huge difference in the way she connects with her patients to meet their needs in unique ways. She offers examples of effective dialog that can foster meaningful connections.

Consider for a moment how many patient decisions are influenced by excellence in communication and trust in the dental team. Fostering positive and lasting connections with patients can influence the success of your dental practice. Therefore, you want to invest in ways to enhance effective communication, build trust, and deepen relationships. Following are three strategies to help you engage in effective dialog with your patients and foster meaningful connections.

No. 1: Build trust with an open ear.

We gain trust most by being great listeners. When we are doing all the educating, talking, and instructing, it is essentially a monologue. Meanwhile concerns, objections, and even confusion can be mounting in the mind of the patient. Lasting connections are built on caring about your patients’ needs, concerns, values, and desires, which we learn by incorporating open-ended questions where they fill in the blank, and we listen. Examples of open-ended questions are: Cindy, what concerns do you have about this treatment? Anna, what else would you like to know about whitening your teeth? Adam, how soon would you like to proceed with treatment?

Building trust with an open ear means we are giving patients time to express their opinions, ask questions, and discover what matters most to them as we become expert listeners. Warning: Most dental professionals are better talkers than listeners. Gaining trust by being a good listener is a skill you should be refining for the rest of your career.

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No. 2: Employ the three Cs of effective communication.

As we invest in educating, motivating, and building relationships with patients, it is helpful to keep the three Cs of effective communication—clear, confident, and concise—in the back of your mind. Our messages need to be clear. Diagnosis needs to be definitive with the presentation of clear treatment plans and visuals that expedite the entire process of establishing communication. Other than treatment to alleviate pain, all treatment is “elective” until the patient desires it, and it is impossible to desire something that isn’t clear.

Tone of voice in your communication can portray uncertainty or confidence. We can build trust more easily when we speak with a cadence that is not too fast and a tone of voice that is confident, yet ­compassionate. Be deliberate in selecting clear words, coupled with a confident tone of voice to foster connections that educate and motivate patients toward healthy decisions. Most importantly, say more with fewer words for effective communication. Learn to be concise by eliminating filler words such as “um” or “you know.”

Here is an example of fostering a connection as you speak confidently: Cindy, I’m recommending a power toothbrush for you today. By using an electric power toothbrush, you will find it is easier and more effective to gently remove plaque from your teeth than with your manual toothbrush. Then, pause. Patients will interject with a comment or question when we pause after offering clear and concise communication. Their input gives us much-needed insight as to their desire for what we are recommending or concerns they may have about our professional recommendations.

No. 3: Make connections personal to each patient.

Some patients need specific details to help them arrive at decisions, while others need the bottom line only. Being a good listener helps you quickly ascertain which patients could benefit from a designated consultation time where they can unpack their questions and gain understanding, compared to other personality types who value efficient, concise information. Take the example of a busy mom who feels she has minimal time for daily oral hygiene priorities while juggling home responsibilities with young children. Introducing Philips Sonicare Chairside Trial to this patient could, for example, enable her to try the power toothbrush for herself in your treatment room, while you emphasize the two-minute benefits of twice-daily use. During Chairside Trial, you can offer quick tips for mom to achieve optimal outcomes and demonstrate how this tool can improve her oral health-care routine and give her one less thing to worry about each day.

On the other hand, a patient desiring whither teeth, who has previously experienced sensitivity with home whitening, might benefit from a consultation where you share examples of other patients’ comfortable experiences with in-office whitening. You can describe how in-office whitening differs from the many other whitening options and develop a strategy for the patient to use a desensitizing paste in conjunction with in-office whitening. In both scenarios, the clinician formulates ways to foster meaningful and trusted connections to meet individual needs. The template is not what you say or do with each patient, rather how you intentionally create a unique approach for each patient. 

Strategic connections with patients that deepen over time become the scaffolding to help build and grow your practice. It isn’t difficult, but it does require a plan. I had a patient once say to my front office administrator following the hand-off, I don’t want whatever it is Karen is selling. I’m not interested in her program. The dentist and I both had recommended nonsurgical periodontal therapy based upon his diagnosis, but I did all the talking (convincing) during the appointment without pausing to allow input or questions from the patient. This patient’s comment became a lightning-bolt moment for me to recognize that I needed to improve my own communication with patients to foster long-term connections, not sever them!

These three strategies—build trust with an open ear; communicate clearly, confidently, and concisely; and make the connections unique and personal to each patient’s needs—have transformed how I communicate today. I hope they will do the same for you. Fostering meaningful connections with our patients genuinely becomes the reward for providing ongoing oral care to them and is essential for everyone concerned. 

Editor's note: This article appeared in the September 2021 print edition of RDH.

Karen Davis, BSDH, RDH, is the founder of Cutting Edge Concepts, an international continuing education company. She practices dental hygiene in Dallas, Texas. She is an independent consultant to the Philips Corporation, Periosciences, and Hu-Friedy/EMS. She can be reached at ­[email protected].