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Stern dentist or concerned friend? How to handle patients’ financial concerns

Aug. 26, 2022
You may be used to communicating with patients with authority. But when you act as a concerned friend instead, you enable them to connect to their own treatment goals—and you establish your role as the trusted guide to get those results.

It’s discouraging when patients say they can’t afford your recommended treatment. Perhaps you’re so tired of hearing that objection that you compromise the plan or get more forceful about the dire consequences of not doing the treatment.

But this approach has its limitations. Instead, you can adapt a communication style that takes you out of the business of overcoming objections and instead encourages patients to convince themselves to get the treatment.

The stern dentist approach

When a patient says they can’t afford treatment, usually they mean one of three things:

  1. They want the treatment but they don’t have the resources to will make this possible.
  2. They don’t trust you and they need a polite way of getting you off their back.
  3. They don’t value the solution you’re offering (or their problem doesn’t merit this solution).

Unfortunately, many dentists adapt a stern dentist personality when they hear a money concern. The stern dentist believes it is their mission as an authority to convince patients to get the treatment. But if the patient’s objections are due to a lack of trust in you or your solution, you can offer CareCredit till the cows come home and the patient will still say no. Worse, the patient senses that you are not on the same side, and you end up in an adversarial relationship with them.

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Your role as a clinician isn’t to overcome your patient’s financial objections, it isn’t even about convincing the patient about the value of treatment, it is about helping the patient convince herself of the benefits of treatment.

The concerned friend approach

Let’s look at the persona of a concerned friend. A great friend listens to your feelings, allows you to vent, and helps explore your options without judgment. This is who you want to become with your patients.

Here's what the concerned friend approach sounds like:

  • I can imagine how it must feel for you to hear this amount.
  • Let’s set aside the money issue for a moment; is this treatment something you want to do?
  • What do you see as the benefits of doing this treatment now?
  • If you got this benefit, how would it change your life?
  • What if we could brainstorm ideas on how you can get that?

These questions follow a technique called motivational interviewing. While it may feel a bit like you’re a therapist, your purpose in the conversation is to move the patient away from the problems in doing the treatment to the benefits of the treatment. Patients motivate themselves, and they will also overcome their own objections when their desire for the results is strong enough. As a concerned friend, you can help your patient uncover their own reasons for wanting treatment. Once patients buy into the benefits, the money issue becomes much less potent.

Focus on results, not concerns

This is actually a profound shift. Earlier in my career as a dental consultant, I taught dentists to ask patients, “What questions or concerns do you have about this treatment?” Now I believe this is the wrong question to ask. Why? Asking someone to name their concerns forces patients to identify their objections to treatment, and then you have to convince the patient that their objections shouldn’t interfere with dentistry after all. This whole conversation puts you on the defensive. Better questions are:

  • What are you looking forward to when this treatment is completed?
  • What do you like most about what we’re planning?

When you act as a concerned friend, you enable your patients to connect to their own goals for treatment, and you establish your role as the trusted guide to get those results.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the September 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

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