Th 87712

Just ask me!

March 1, 2002

How do we know what our patients really want? How do we meet their needs, gain their trust, and ensure a positive experience? The answer is easier than you think.

by Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd

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About two years ago, I went to a Fortune Management motivational seminar on excellence and personal achievement. I learned many concepts during the seminar, but one stayed with me that I found profoundly valuable and immediately beneficial: effective communication.

Successful communication is key to almost everything in life. When communication is smooth, it's as if we can read each other's minds. At other times, it can seem as though we're speaking different languages! It all depends on the questions you ask.

How often do you feel as though you're spinning your wheels when trying to influence your patients? What if you possessed a magic key to unlock the secret of what drives your patients? Below are two questions you can ask patients that go right to the heart of determining their values and motivation. You won't believe how easy they are!

What's the most important thing to you about your mouth or teeth? Patients might answer the first question by stating that their gingival health is most important.

How will we know that we have achieved your desired results? Patients may state that if the tissue stops bleeding, they would feel they had achieved this goal.

The day after I returned from the seminar, I wanted to test this line of questioning. I worked in an office as a substitute hygienist; my third patient of the day was a 19-year-old whose father was an orthodontist. He had just completed two half-mouth visits for root planing and debridement, and I was scheduled to see him for his six-week re-evaluation. After reviewing his medical history and chatting with him for a few minutes, I asked him the first question: "John, what's the most important thing to you about your mouth?"

I was expecting him to discuss how he knew his gums had been in bad shape, and how he wanted to make sure his gums stayed healthy after all the treatment and home care he had undertaken. Gosh, was I taken aback when he responded, "I just want white teeth."

I was dumbfounded! I immediately needed to shift gears at this stage. If I had not asked him this operative question, I would have spoken to him — probably for about five to eight minutes — about gingival health, diminished swelling, flossing, water-irrigation, or some other oral-health care procedure. I threw all that out the window and talked only about white teeth!

I had his attention! For the next few minutes, I talked briefly about bleaching, useful toothpastes, the effects of smoking, and other measures that contribute to staining and whitening. I then linked this with his initial Type I gingivitis and localized Type II periodontitis; this teenager was all ears! I related the fact that if the gums are healthy and pink, the teeth will look improved and more attractive.

My advice would have fallen on deaf ears had I not asked him that all-important question. Possibly the greatest benefit to John was that I listened. What he said mattered — an extremely important issue to a teenager. Too often, my own agenda is first and foremost in my mind when talking to patients.

One thing is certain — people truly like to be heard. Survey after survey shows that being heard and understood is vital to healthy patient relationships (as well as every other relationship, for that matter). Listening to our patients builds trust, and with trust there is a higher level of commitment from the patient.

How would you feel if you had to go to the dentist, and he or she asked you: "What's the most important thing about your visit today?" Or, "What's most important to you about your dental health?" And after answering, they asked, "How will we know that we've reached that goal?"

Do you think you would at least feel that you were given the opportunity to evaluate these things for yourself, as well as a fair chance for the dentist to respond favorably? That in itself is extremely valuable.

So, what would you say? Moreover, how would you feel if you were confident that the dentists and staff were truly listening? Try this with your own patients and see how quickly you gain confidence and trust — in yourself and your patients.

Now, here's the best part ... you can ask these questions of just about anyone, on just about any topic. Simply fill in the blank: What's the most important thing to you about ? And, how will I know I have made that happen for you? (What would it look like? Describe how it would be.)

Just to see how valuable these questions were, I asked my 10-year-old son, Zachary, "What's the most important thing to you about Mom?" He thought for about one minute (a long time for an eager Mom), and finally said, "That you care." I then asked, "What would I do or say that would show you I care?"

That was easier! He simply said, "Mom, it would be like, if I were to fall and hurt myself, that you would take care of me."

I took this one step further in my own adult mind and realized it was really about him feeling that I could help provide a sense of security for him as he is growing. It's the most basic, fundamental need on Maslow's pyramid: to feel safe.

Here's why I love this line of questioning: It helps me focus on those things that are most important to the person I'm talking to. It can help keep things uncomplicated and simple — a strategy I strive for every day.

Try this technique a few times and observe its impact on you and the relationships you have with your patients, friends, and family. If you're like me, you will find it to be an invaluable tool!

Juli Kagan, RDH, MEd, teaches clinical dental hygiene, periodontology, and preventive dentistry at Broward Community College in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She also teaches instrumentation and clinical application for the perio department at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at (561) 716-0174 or by email at [email protected].

Tips for communicating with patients

One of the most challenging aspects of communication with patients is actively listening. People want to experience a genuine acceptance of their truth or position. They want to be heard, and they want feedback — both verbal and nonverbal — that demonstrates you are tuned in to what they are saying. Active listening involves:

Attending. Paying complete attention to the sender and demonstrating this focus non-verbally

Silence. Letting someone get their message completely out while you simply attend.

Response. Demonstrating that you have received the message.

Door Openers. Inviting someone to continue when you want to hear more.

Active listening is the sign that you have fully understood the message — the meaning, not just the words. It assists you in avoiding communication roadblocks, such as habitually offering a solution, judging responses, diverting the conversation back to your agenda, and withdrawing. It allows you first to understand, then be understood.

Active listening empowers you and others to accomplish desired and mutually profitable outcomes.