Faster, better ways to communicate with your patients

The dental profession is an interesting place to be in the 21st century. On a daily basis we deal with many complexities that simply become our “normal routine.

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by David Little, DDS, and Jim Poole, MBA

The dental profession is an interesting place to be in the 21st century. On a daily basis we deal with many complexities that simply become our “normal routine.” But when you stop and think about the challenges we face, it is easy to see how difficult it is to build a successful, satisfying business. The dental profession has always appeared to be slow and steady, insulated from the volatility of economic cycles and the unpredictable mood swings of pop culture. But I don’t feel insulated anymore. In fact, I feel like the dental profession has joined the proverbial rat race, and it’s difficult to keep up.

The America we live in today is barely recognizable from our parents’ generation. Our population is more transient, our pace of life is faster, our attention span is shorter, and everyone appears to want things done yesterday. How many times have you been asked to sacrifice quality for the sake of time? As time becomes our most important commodity, it is imperative that we continue to find ways to save it.

Dentistry is part art, part science, but all about people. In dental school, the people part of the equation was overlooked, and it took me a number of years in practice to realize its importance. Dentists are great with their hands. In general, we probably have a natural proclivity to anything tactile, which was further reinforced through our dental education. Therefore, our strengths are improved upon and refined in practice, but what about the other side of the equation? What about the people part? We don’t sell widgets; we provide our respective communities with dental solutions — either preventive, restorative, or cosmetic. Dentistry is a service business, and communication is paramount to success.

Communication, by definition, is “the exchange of ideas, messages, or information.” It is not tangible. In fact, communication is one of the most dynamic elements of the human condition. Effective communication begins with listening. Listening opens the door to understanding, and though I have heard many times that there are two sides to every story, I am still amazed to hear another’s perspective. Sometimes it is similar to mine, sometimes it is completely different, but never has it been exactly like mine ... that is what makes communication fun and challenging at the same time.

To best serve our community and our craft, we need to communicate effectively with our team members, patients, labs, supply reps, technology vendors, and community at large. The goal of effective communication is simple: to empower our patients with the knowledge required to make an informed decision about their oral health or cosmetic desires. It is not up to us as dental practitioners to “sell” our dentistry; it is simply up to us to communicate our objective, expert opinion about our patients’ oral health wants and needs. My approach to effective communication has evolved over the past two decades with help from business coaches, and includes the following three elements:

  • Communication within the dental team
  • Communication with patients
  • The impact of technology

Communication within the dental team

How many team members interface with your patients daily? What are patients hearing from your various team members? Is it a consistent message and theme? Consistency is the first step to effective communication. Let’s think about a service experience outside of dentistry for a minute.

Let’s say that this past weekend your car broke down and required service. You took it in to your trusted dealer and waited. While waiting, you watched a little television, communicated with your family using your BlackBerry®, and paced around the waiting room. Finally, the customer service rep found you pacing and gave you the diagnosis for your car. You wanted to learn more, so you asked to speak directly with the mechanic. The mechanic offered you a completely different diagnosis. In fact, it didn’t even appear that the mechanic and customer service rep were talking about the same vehicle. Where does that leave you? Confused, uncomfortable, and ready to take your car elsewhere! Consider your patient’s experience when he or she hears different messages in your practice. Are you unknowingly sending patients out the back door through inconsistent communication?

We don’t see our patients frequently enough to overcome inconsistent messages. We cannot afford even one-time communication mistakes. I know we’re all busy and there doesn’t appear to be enough of that valuable commodity called time, but your team needs to communicate regularly to ensure a consistent message.

In my practice, we work with Focused Evolution, Inc., a strategy consulting firm. Together, we have implemented a clinical operating team that meets regularly to discuss treatment philosophies and the adoption of new techniques and technologies. Twenty years ago, our practice was focused on preventive and restorative dentistry. Today, we offer our community a plethora of cosmetic and oral health solutions including laser dentistry, whitening, implants, veneers, Invisalign, occlusal guards, implant-supported overdentures, oral cancer screening, and more. The adoption of dental technologies and techniques into daily practice takes time, effort, and communication. Our clinical operating team consists of our doctors, assistants, hygienists, and treatment coordinator. Our process for new technique/technology adoption is methodical and inclusive and routinely follows this path:

  1. Identification of patient needs. Patients present with dissatisfaction regarding their oral health or appearance, and we address their complaints.
  2. Identification of techniques/technologies available to take care of our patients’ needs. We choose a technique/technology based upon our experience, peer referral, literature reviews, etc.
  3. Attend continuing education with the team to learn more about the technique/technology. Through this we gain competency and confidence in how to effectively treat our patients’ needs.
  4. Discuss practice implementation of the new technique. We talk about the problems we are solving, how we want to educate our patients about the new technique, how we are going to measure its success, and who is going to lead the implementation.
  5. Try the new technique in the practice and discuss our progress regularly to continuously improve and make any necessary adjustments.

We have witnessed several benefits to our approach that have helped us serve our patients better. We work more effectively as a team — everyone is on the same page with what we are trying to accomplish. Everyone has the opportunity to be heard and to contribute to our collective success. Our customer service has improved because we’re all saying the same things, which creates an uncompromising level of patient trust and loyalty.

Communication with patients

Communication with patients occurs in many forms and should happen before their first visit to your practice. In today’s society, every business needs a Web site. Having a Web site may not drive tremendous business growth, but the absence of one can certainly hurt. Most of us are familiar with the Internet and use it regularly to find information. If a new patient is researching the community to find a dentist, your practice will be overlooked or appear antiquated if you don’t have a Web site. When you build your Web site, spend some time on the content; don’t leave it up to the discretion of a Web developer to tell your community who you are and what you are about. Keep in mind that females make most of the household decisions regarding health care, so tailor your message to have an impact on their decision.

Chairside communication with your patients is one of the most important elements to building a sustainable, successful dental business. In dental school, most of us were taught to minimize the problem and maximize the solution. I don’t believe that philosophy helped me as a practicing clinician. In fact, that mentality impeded my ability to connect with my patients in the candid way required for them to take ownership of their oral health and wellbeing. I have found that the approach of sugarcoating my patients’ problems has only fostered poor oral health and left me with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It has taken me several years and lots of business coaching to learn that my role is to serve as a compassionate expert regarding my patients’ oral health and to inform them of the facts. It is up to my patients to judge the information I provide and make a decision regarding their treatment. My present philosophy has evolved through the years and is predicated on treating every patient with respect, compassion, and candor. Their oral health is not my problem, it’s their problem, and I am here to help them by providing a solution. My chairside communication style involves the following steps:

  • Tell patients the problems precisely and in simple terms.
  • Inform them of how the problems occurred.
  • Inform them of the treatment recommendations.
  • Inform them of the consequences if treatment is delayed or ignored.

This approach has improved our case acceptance and my job satisfaction. In the past, I went home worrying more about my patients’ problems than they did. Our candid, factual, yet compassionate approach puts the responsibility where it belongs — with my patients. They are coming to my practice, sitting in my operatory, opening their mouths, and asking for my help. I love what I do and I have found that I am doing them a better service by telling them what I see and what we can do about it.

The impact of technology

Technology is pervading our entire culture, and the sooner we embrace it, the better we can serve our patients and our profession. In today’s culture, advanced technologies are perceived to be synonymous with high quality, sophistication, and premium value. There are three technologies that have significantly impacted my ability to communicate effectively with my patients: digital photography, patient education software, and patient marketing software.

One of the goals of patient communication is to get patients to take action in the treatment and care of their oral health. To accomplish this goal, patients need a sense of urgency and ownership. I used to talk dentistry to my patients until I was blue in the face, while asking them to follow my story with a dental mirror. This approach was clumsy, frustrating, and ineffective. The power of digital photography is the power of truth. I no longer ask my patients to trust in my words; I can show them their mouths with undeniable accuracy. The result has been profound. Our case acceptance has improved dramatically, my frustration with trying to explain dentistry has diminished, and the perception of our practice being “high tech” has increased.

The power of showing my patients their mouths is further enhanced when I am able to educate them on cause and effect using patient education software. We have monitors in each operatory and use Cercon Coach and MedVisor. Several years ago, my team and I learned the value of “flexing” to different personality profiles from Pinnacle Practices, Inc. Historically, we were guilty of this trap: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” — Abraham Maslow

We used to communicate to all of our patients in the same manner with mixed results and limited understanding. There are many patients who will simply trust what we say after they’ve seen their digital photographs and radiographs and agree to our treatment plan. However, there are many patients who want to know more before making a treatment decision. Henry Schein “Guru” and Cercon Coach provide easy-to-understand overviews of oral health problems and procedural solutions. The interface is easy to navigate, and the graphics are sophisticated and easy to follow.

Patient marketing software is the third technology addition that has improved our patient communication. We use a service called Smile Reminder to conveniently connect electronically with our patients. Using the service, we can communicate with our patients regarding promotional activities, satisfaction surveys, and most importantly, appointment reminders. Cell phones and text messages are ubiquitous — we leverage technology to provide our patients with handy reminders, which has improved our scheduling efficiencies and reduced our no-shows. This technology is another way to touch patients in a sophisticated way that reinforces your high-tech image and illustrates your desire to invest in technologies to improve patient convenience and build loyalty.

Communication is the building block of business success for our profession. It doesn’t matter if you possess the best hands in the history of dentistry or if you have mastered a myriad of sophisticated dental procedures; if you can’t communicate with your team and your patients, you can’t win. If your patients don’t say yes to your recommended treatment, then who will you perform dentistry on? Effective communication requires patience, effort, humility, and a process for improvement. But you don’t have to do it alone. The business coaching I enlisted helped my team implement new strategies efficiently and effectively. We wish you the same great success in your dental business!

David Little, DDS, is an accomplished national and international speaker, professor, author, and researcher. His private practice in San Antonio includes a multidisciplinary state-of-the-art facility. His passion for dentistry and his enthusiasm for the team concept specifically enliven and motivate all who hear him. Contact Dr. Little by e-mail at dlittledds@aol.com.

Focused Evolution, Inc., is a strategy-consulting firm that specializes in developing growth strategies for businesses throughout the dental value chain — from dental schools to dental labs to dental manufacturers to dental practices. Visit the company’s Web site at www.focusedevolution.com or call (302) 383-1450 to learn more about how Focused Evolution can help you achieve your professional goals. Send an e-mail to Jim Poole, MBA, at jim.poole@focusedevolution.com.

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