Doing the dance: It's more than just a cleaning!

June 24, 2005
Tips help you convince patients in seeing the value of good oral health.

by Marcia "Starr" Lambert

You mutter under your breath, "Here we go again." But this time you crack; trying to hold it in won't work.

"Mr. Johnson, you know what you get with that free cleaning your insurance pays for? Nothing! But you don't care! You won't pay for what you need. You're bleeding like a stuck pig. Your breath stinks because you haven't brushed your teeth in days and I don't care if all your teeth are laying on your pillow in the morning!"

Then the alarm goes off, and it's another day in the battle zone. How many times have you sighed inwardly, taken a deep breath and tried again to have patients see the value in taking care of their mouth? And come on, don't you sometimes take it personally? Feel powerless and ineffective? If all you were there for was a paycheck, you could have taken the money for hygiene school and gone on a world cruise and become a forklift operator instead.

Why don't they care!?!

Calm down, and let's analyze the problem. In fact, let's "go shopping."

"Shopping? What has that got do with oral hygiene?" Here's a hint, which, in a lucid moment, you will probably agree with ... People only buy what they want. It could be those "cute girl" shoes on sale last week, or that new power drill for building the deck out back. Either way, whatever people purchase gives them pleasure, fills a need, or solves a problem.

"So?" you shrug. "I still don't see your point."

It's no secret that only 38 percent of the American population seeks the services of a dentist — even when they can afford it, especially men. Teeth came with the package, so unless something breaks, hurts, or bleeds, they don't darken your doorstep. And by the time they do, you're the enemy because it's going to hurt to fix it. Then, it's going to cost a lot of money to be hurt to fix it — hardly anyone budgets for dentistry.

But there are also those patients who pay to have you do the work, then don't see the value in keeping it up since they'll be back in six months (more like nine by the time they miss their recall appointment and need to be rescheduled at least once). But hey, it's free, so why pass it up? It's time to break the cycle and create a new paradigm (model).

If value is determined by desire or need, you must find which one it is. Just going over the health history isn't enough. You must get personal. Is your patient motivated by how she/he looks? Is chewing a problem? Are they concerned with bad breath? Do they have systemic problems like heart disease or stroke that could be aggravated, or even caused by an oral infection? Do they care about losing their teeth?

Hint: If they don't, you can't make them!

After working in a perio office as a Patient Care Coordinator, it became clear that I usually had to resort to scare tactics on the guys. That meant getting out the big guns — those nasty posters and photos of rampant gum disease (fondly referred to as "that infection full of pus over here"). In some cases, I resorted to the jar full of extracted teeth floating in formaldehyde.

"Do you notice that most of these teeth have no cavities?" I'd leer. "Most of them were loose and nearly fell out by themselves because there was no longer any bone or gum tissue to hold them in!"

For those who could be motivated, that usually did the trick. You can't be "nice" with some people. Not everybody is motivated by health! If that is the only approach you have and it isn't hitting the target, you're out of bullets and you've missed the mark.

Here are four ways to get your patient's attention. Ask these questions and see where it leads:

• Have you noticed that when you smile there are spaces between your teeth? Bleeding? Does that concern you? (Appearance)

• When you chew, do you find that food gets caught between your teeth and bothers you, or that they feel like they're moving? Are there particular foods that do it more than others? (Make them remember that's what happens every time they chew!)

• Are you concerned you have bad breath? (Peer acceptance is a huge issue. Look at all the money spent on chewing gum, breath mints, and mouthwash!) Is there a particular time you notice it more than others? (Don't be afraid and look them in the eye when you ask this question! If you can't help them, who can?)

• Has anyone in your family had heart disease or stroke? Suffer from stomach or intestinal problems? I notice you checked off this on your health history. Tell me more about that.

As you open up discussion and get them talking (hint: They should be talking more than you are), you will find their interest growing. The more you can get them thinking about their problem, the more value they will attach to finding a way to solve it.

From that point on, address their concerns and tell them what they need to do to help you take care of it. You will have fewer no-shows, patients who take responsibility for their home care (well, most of them anyway, except maybe "Bubba," whose entire family only had 12 teeth total when they smiled for the last family reunion photo). Make them partners in their dental care and you will become their champion. Then you can ask your doctor to pay you on commission instead of salary and buy two pairs of those cute girl shoes ... or maybe hire Bubba to build the deck.

Marcia Lambert is an image and marketing coach who teaches Smile School, a workshop for enhancing internal marketing skills. She co-hosts the weekly series, "Dental Marketing to Today's Woman" Visit her website at or call her directly at (877) 892-0659.

and....capitalize the words Patient Care Coordinator. It is a title as well as a job description.