Back to the Future: Maybe the old-fashioned becomes new-fashioned

I remember the days when I graduated from dental school in the late 1970s. The faculty basically suggested that all we needed to do was hang out a sign

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I remember the days when I graduated from dental school in the late 1970s. The faculty basically suggested that all we needed to do was hang out a sign and our practices would become full of patients.

It’s hard to believe that those days did exist. But, of course, those were also the days of rampant decay, materials that were clearly inferior as compared to today, periodontal disease (much of which went undiagnosed), and continual large-filling failures.

It was also the time when only a few dentists paid scant attention to patient relationships. It was a period of mass production when patients were moved quickly in and out the door. If the procedures weren’t comfortable or if the office looked uninviting with glass cabinets full of instruments in patients’ view, that was just the way it was done.

This was also the time before the Supreme Court declared it was legal for dentists to advertise. Prior to that, it was all word-of-mouth referrals. Those dentists who did take extra time to care about how patients felt about their experiences were uniquely successful. It was also the time of "Marcus Welby" medicine, when a doctor actually bothered to speak to patients and care about their lives as much as their medical conditions.

Let’s fast forward to today. How many times have you seen advertisements for direct mail, Web site enhancement, search optimization, and other external mass marketing approaches? Sure, these work to attract a certain segment of the population that usually is not very discriminating about their care, other than cost.

Let me suggest that we may be going back to the future. The old-fashioned, one-on-one caring from dentist to patient – in which the dentist actually takes time to get to know the patient – might return.

But then it never really disappeared. But when you see management experts discussing 10-minute scheduling and conversations between dentists and doctor that need to be minimized so the doctor stays on time, you may think that the art of conversation is dead and unproductive.

I believe that taking the time to have productive conversations with patients does pay off. I am not speaking about someone’s dental needs and care, but getting to know the person and his or her family. I think these relationships will pay the highest dividends and in more ways than just added profit. How about decreased stress and enjoyment?

Why do I believe this? Take the following scenario.

A Web-based company sends out cards that are made to look personalized. If you look closely at the card, the script writing looks real. But on the back of the card, there is a big logo for the Internet company that sent out the card.

Now, if you have a sophisticated patient who looks at the whole card and sees the mass-produced script that was sent in a mass-produced way, what is the patient going to think? Will the patient think that this is a misleading way of trying to appear personalized?

Patients have pretty good antennae these days, particularly in this economy. They are more savvy than ever and are not just looking for value but genuine care as well.

I do not think there are shortcuts to patient conversations, whether you are talking about person-to-person networking in Rotary clubs and business groups or getting to know neighbors and friends in synagogues and churches.

Doesn’t this sound like the way medical and dental professionals used to do things? Think of how high our trust level was in national surveys in the late ’70s. I believe this had much to do with patients getting to know dentists, as well as dentists getting to know them.

Isn’t it true that people do business with prople they know, trust, and like? Is there a better way to gain these advantages than simply one-on-one time when the clock in the office is not watched so carefully?

Here’s the real benefit, particularly for those who wish to do more sophisticated work. You will earn more acceptance, belief, and trust. Certainly, you will earn it more than if the patient comes to you from the Yellow Pages.

So, if you want to be the cheapest dentist on the block, and work a schedule to the nth degree, do not follow anything I have suggested. But, if you want to excel, and have the additional benefit of your patientd not just being patients but your extended family, consider reducing your expenses for external marketing and focus on the internal with patient relationships. I think you will benefit greatly from the experience.

Dr. Ron Linden is in private practice in Shelton, Conn. A former dental instructor, he is a Pankey Study Club member, chairman of dental ethics of the state dental association, cofounder of a local dental clinic, and member of the Pierre Fauchard Society. Reach him via e-mail at drronlinden@yahoo.com.

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