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Nov. 1, 2003
How do you tune the news junkies out when they are in the chair?
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by Patrick Wahl, DMD, MBA, and Lorraine Hollett

At times, a current event is so all-encompassing that it is on the mind of every patient who comes in the door ... and on the tips of their tongues. Now that we have 24-hour real-time news coverage available to us, many patients who come into our practice are informed up to the minute. They have well thought out opinions and insights that they want to share. (Think back to September 11 or Operation Iraqi Freedom.)

But the question that is pertinent to our practice of dentistry is: "Should we encourage discussions on highly charged topics in our dental chair?"

Think about the purpose of the dental visit, as well as the feelings we want to promote in our patients to help them through an involved procedure or to get them to a position in which they can choose the best dentistry for themselves. The agitation inherent in emotionally charged topics is not conducive to the sober decision-making needed to make important dental-health choices.

Our advice is to minimize discussion of emotionally charged issues in the dental setting. The best way to accomplish this is to "zoom in."

We're all experts at this, but we might not realize it. For example, you may go to your daughter's softball games this season. During that time, you will easily shoot seven or eight rolls of film, which you can't wait to get developed. Even though there was plenty of activity going on during each one of those shots, you will find that you instinctively focused on your child. She's front and center in virtually every photo — even when she is just kicking up dirt in the outfield. And when she looks at your pictures, she loves every one of them — because they're all about her. In the same way, focus on "snapshots" of your patients' lives.

Sure, there's a big world out there, with all kinds of things going on in the periphery, but conversation with a patient should "zoom in" on the individual. Ask a question such as, "How do you spend most of your time?" Such a question is open-ended, and you'll be surprised at the answers you get. It can lead to a discussion about work, hobbies, children, PTA, church, gardening — you name it! Jot down notes on what your patient reveals about herself, and you'll never be at a loss for a topic of conversation.

Tell me more

The three magic words that make a great conversationalist are: Tell me more! Consider this sample conversation:

Hygienist: "So, Mrs. Kersey, how do you spend most of your time?"
Mrs. Kersey: "Lately, I've been in a rush to finish knitting an afghan for my granddaughter."
Hygienist: "Really? Tell me more."
Mrs. Kersey: "She's going off to Penn State in the fall, and I'm using the school colors in my blanket. I think she'll really enjoy using it in her dorm room."
Hygienist: "Penn State? Any family history there?"
Mrs. Kersey: "Her father went there. It's becoming a family tradition ..."

You see how a well-stated question can get the ball rolling. You're goal isn't necessarily to learn more about knitting, grandchildren, or colleges; it's about listening to and connecting with your patient and showing her you care.

Change the subject

Some people, however, are "news junkies" and can't seem to think of anything else. They were watching CNN in the break room at work before they jumped into their cars and switched on news radio on their way to your practice. This over-saturation spills into their visit with you.

If this patient just can't wait to express his opinion of President Bush, or the front-runners for the next election, or how to rebuild Iraq, your best bet is to be sensitive to the patient's comments. But remember, the less said, the better. A non-committal transition statement, such as, "I know what you mean. The Iraq situation is on everybody's mind these days," can be a bridge to a less-sensitive topic.

Changing the subject shouldn't be a problem. After all, the patient knows why he's in your practice. You can easily steer the conversation to dental health or more personal issues.

Be interested, not interesting

Who do you look for first in a group photograph? Let's face it, we all look for ourselves. Patients are interested in themselves, as well. You do not need to have the most interesting hobbies, volunteer work, or family stories to be a good conversationalist with patients.

You just need to be interested in them. According to talk show host Larry King, the best question is "Why?" He says, "If a man tells me he and his family are moving to another city: 'Why?' A woman is changing jobs: 'Why?' Someone roots for the Mets: 'Why?' On my television show, I probably use this word more than any other. It's the greatest question ever asked, and it always will be."

Zooming in on your patient will make him feel like the most important person in the world at that moment. This level of patient care will ensure a well-received dental visit and will go a long way in countering any negative impressions the patient may have of dental offices and dental treatment.

Lorraine Hollett and Patrick Wahl, DMD, MBA, of Office Magic are lecturers and the developers of Colossal Case Acceptance, a resource which takes you from "A to Z" in getting patients from their first phone call all the way to "How soon can I get this done?" For more information, call (800) 750-8779 or visit