Paul Homoly, DDS
"Cher is nice when patients feel at home."
Have you seen the movie, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding?" It's a love story about two people — Toula Portokalos and Ian Miller. It's a story of how they met, fell in love, and how they encountered huge cultural differences in their families. Toula is the daughter of Gus Portokalos, whose family runs Dancing Zorba's Greek restaurant in Chicago. Gus is completely committed to the beliefs that: 1) Greeks should educate non-Greeks about being Greek, 2) every English word has its root in Greek, and 3) any ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex.
Toula was raised with the belief that Greek girls should marry Greek boys, make Greek babies, and feed everyone until the day they die.
But the boy she falls in love with, Ian, is not Greek. He's an Anglo Saxon, Episcopalian, middle class, high school teacher. Together, Ian and Toula are the Romeo and Juliet of Dancing Zorba's restaurant. Their love is like a river divided by their family's cultural divergence.
The story of Toula and Ian has a happy ending, and anyone who comes from a diverse cultural background understands how cultural differences can obstruct relationships.
Dentistry has a culture. Dentistry's culture is like any other's whose people share common language and beliefs. And just like the culture of the Portokalos family made it difficult for Ian to feel at home, so, too, can the culture of dentistry make it difficult for our patients to feel at home.
Don't eat meat on Friday
I'm Catholic. When I was young, it was considered a sin to eat meat on Friday. Years have passed since the "don't eat meat on Friday" doctrine has been dropped. But, to this day, I still ask myself what day it is before ordering the prime rib. Once instilled, the intentions of beliefs can stay with us long after their usefulness is gone.
A core belief in dentistry is that the role of the dentist and team is to educate patients with the intention of increasing the likelihood that they will accept our treatment recommendations. Would it be a sacrilege to suggest that traditional patient education can obstruct relationships, reducing the likelihood of case acceptance? Is it unthinkable that raising the dental IQ can work against the dentist/patient relationship? I see abundant evidence that the traditional approach to patient education can obstruct relationships.
Understanding versus educating
Management consultant and author Sandy Roth says, "Spend less time educating patients and more time understanding them." That's good advice! Consider this example. A 50-year-old woman is scared to death of losing her teeth. She's new to your area, and just before she and her husband moved, the distal abutment of a long-span bridge failed. The last thing she needs is more trouble with her teeth! She's had her mouth rebuilt twice and is in your chair for her new-patient visit. She knows she needs something done, but is not sure who should do it. She's visited two other offices to get their opinions. Now it's your turn. Which approach will make this patient feel the most "at home" — a highly detailed educational description of her treatment plan, or a conversation aimed at understanding how her care can best be fit into the current events of her life, such as budget, schedule, and travel?
Our culture in dentistry urges us to explain things, but people respond much better to being understood. Avoid one-sided "educational" conversations. Some of dentistry's language and beliefs can leave patients saying to themselves, "It's all Greek to me!"
Dr. Paul Homoly coaches dental teams to implement reconstructive dentistry through his continuing-education workshops, private consulting, and seminars. This column is an excerpt from his new book, Isn't It Wonderful When Patients Say Yes? — Case Acceptance for Complete Dentistry. Dr. Homoly can be reached at (704) 342-4900 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his Web site at www.paulhomoly.com.