Getting your patients to say "Yes" to optimal dentistry

Feb. 1, 2001
Praise, practice, and preparation can help you become a skilled communicator with patients
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Preventive maintenance has become an increasingly important component of every well-organized dental practice. Commonly known to our patients as "the cleaning," this 50- to 60-minute appointment is the foundation that empowers a patient toward a lifetime of ideal dental health.

Preventive maintenance is no longer just a cleaning. It is a comprehensive session during which you accomplish two very important functions. You may perform a wide range of clinical tasks that maintain or improve a patient's oral health while also providing an equally wide range of information that will enable the patient to make informed choices about dental procedures, treatment plans, services, products, and excellent home care.

It is no accident that you have become the frontline educator. In your operatory, you have the tools at your disposal that can keep patients healthy. You are also the member of the dental team who has the most time to educate and teach patients. In your operatory, 40 to 80 percent of dental-care needs are first discovered.

To deal competently with this important responsibility, you must be ready to readjust your goals so that they reflect a commitment to excellence not only in clinical tasks, but in educational tasks as well. You must be willing and committed to educating patients, with the goal of raising their dental awareness to the highest level. Patients who are well-educated about their dental health problems and appropriate maintenance and recare options are patients who are most receptive to optimal treatment plans.

As a master hygienist, you have a high standard of ethics. You know that the purpose of communicating dental value to your patients is not just to "sell them something." You know that the information you communicate to your patients is designed to guide them through a series of steps which will result in accepting appropriate treatment to protect, strengthen, and improve the overall appearance of their teeth for the rest of their lives.

If properly motivated, most patients will move toward behavior that makes them feel good. It is your responsibility to provide the proper motivation. To do this, you must be a skilled communicator. How we say something can impact our patients tremendously. If the message is delivered well, it is understood well. If the message is unclear or unfocused, it is frequently misunderstood.

A clear and simple delivery is absolutely essential. Patients are not dental experts. They do not know - and do not want to know - highly technical dental jargon that has no meaning for them. They have little interest in generalities and are interested only in information that relates directly to them, their specific problems and concerns, and the solutions. Your presentation must reflect your understanding of these simple truths. You must fine-tune your communication skills so that your message is always simple, precise, clear, and specifically designed for each individual patient. The verbal message should be reinforced with charts, pictures, brochures, and other visual aids.

Patients who come to a dental practice are often anxious, sometimes in pain, and usually in need of compassionate and tender care. To communicate with patients effectively, you must be fully aware of these physical and emotional realities. Always present information in a way that allows even the most terrified and uncomfortable patient to feel safe and sincerely cared for. Patients should see you as a true friend who is working to assist them in every way. They must hear the sincerity behind the facts and feel the caring attitude behind the words that are spoken. By earning their trust, you gain the ability to reinforce in them the belief that the treatment plans and products you recommend are absolutely the best and most appropriate for them.

When we work with patients, we should be enthusiastic, assertive, and have good eye contact. Always be aware of body language and tone of voice because how you say something can impact your credibility, either positively or negatively. Believe in yourself and your dental skills. Consistently communicate to patients that the treatment you want them to accept is absolutely the best therapy for them. If you project any doubt or hesitation, patients will "feel" it.

If your presentation is good, only minimal reinforcement from the dentist is needed to encourage the patient to accept the presented treatment plan. It is important to remember that a good delivery is only good if it is accurate. Always be sure the information you are giving patients is correct. Let your patients see that you are a competent professional who knows what you are talking about.

Knowledge is the hygienist's most powerful tool. Every day we are bombarded by questions from patients, such as:

  • "Why do I need a fluoride treatment when I heard the amount of fluoride in my water supply is enough?"
  • "What is a sealant? Does it really work?"
  • "Why would I want to spend so much money on an implant?"

When you can answer these and similar questions confidently and accurately, patients are reassured that they are in the presence of an educated and competent professional. Never be unprepared. Know procedures, techniques, and products and know how to speak about all of them effectively. Practice makes perfect; preparing and memorizing responses to frequently asked questions can be extremely useful.

Because you are the practice's principal educator, you can use your communication skills to let patients know that they have chosen the best practice for their dental care. This tells patients you are proud of your work and the practice. Patients will respond well to an individual who is willing to praise his or her supervisors and team members.

Communication is a two-way street. You must always know when it is time to stop speaking and start listening. Be willing to give a patient your full attention. Watch for body language which signals that the patient feels it is his or her turn to talk, ask a question, express an opinion, or even tell a joke. The circle of communication is complete and unbroken only if and when this occurs. Once the circle is achieved, you truly can call yourself a master communicator and educator.

Cynthia McKane-Wagester, RDH, is the founder and president of McKane & Associates, a company offering healthcare professionals a program that supports and teaches a "win-win" approach to profitability, optimal patient care, and excellent customer service. For more information, call (800) 341-1244 or e-mail [email protected].