Learning is a two-way street

Don't be too busy or too shy to gather information you can respond to in positive ways that will benefit you and the people you serve!

Richard A. Green, DDS, MBA

In our attempt to live up to the Latin derivative of the word doctor, which is teacher, we often think of education (or learning) in the dental office as a one-way event — the dentist dispenses knowledge to the staff and patients. However, if we take a relatively small risk, the opportunities to learn become a two-way exchange.

My columns in the quarterly newsletter of The Pankey Institute have frequently encouraged dentists to reflect on the dental office as an educational institution where everyone involved (doctor, staff, and patients) can learn and grow. This means turning the tables and sometimes looking upon patients as teachers.

Whenever I encouraged my patients to clarify their health values, they made decisions to improve or support healthy dental habits with conviction. And whenever I encouraged my patients to speak about their own area of expertise, they helped me clarify values that led to personal growth and career development.

Early in my career, I was interested in investing and money management. Although I had been subscribing to the Wall Street Journal for some time, I didn't really understand what I was reading. Then, along came a patient (Harry) who was an upper-level executive for a worldwide management consulting firm. He would schedule top-of-the-morning appointments and arrive 30 minutes early. As I walked through the door, he would be reading my Wall Street Journal and sipping a cup of coffee. Naturally, when I noticed Harry's interest in the newspaper, I asked, "How do you read the WSJ?" He responded, "It depends. It depends on what you are invested in."

From that point on in our doctor-patient-teacher relationship, we would routinely "huddle" together over the WSJ with our respective cups of coffee prior to the start of our scheduled mornings. And I continued to learn from him. In retrospect, it was the beginning of an interest that led to my MBA in finance, my association with Moss-Adams Advisory Services and the Gallup Organization, and eventually my departmental position at The Pankey Institute.

I have had the privilege to learn from thousands of dentists. In the second half of the 1990s, The Pankey Institute joined with the Gallup Organization to survey hundreds of practices to develop a database on patient and staff perceptions. In 2002, the Institute offered an enhanced Patient Perception Survey program. The survey data is now pouring in.

As I study patients' perceptions of the surveyed practices, I have come to discover that we dentists have a lot to learn together. Feedback reveals that dentists are perceived as very good technically, but according to patients, many offices could improve in the areas of relationship development, doctor-patient trust, and impact on patients' health decisions.

Other offices have cause to celebrate wildly as patients are clearly, positively perceiving the care, concern, and genuine interest in patient opinions and oral health. Our data indicates that in these offices patient retention, case acceptance, patient referrals, staff loyalty, and income are exceptionally high.

Listening to your patients empathetically — i.e., taking time to get to know their circumstances and concerns and requesting their interpretations — leads to useful knowledge. We need to take the risk of simply asking for our patient's perceptions and then examining opportunities for two-way learning. Consequently, we can act on our discoveries. Maybe then, upon reflection, we will begin to realize the knowledge and understanding we can gain from these valuable interactions.

Don't be too busy or too shy to gather information you can respond to in positive ways that will benefit you and the people you serve! Learn how to be present with and for your patients. I promise you will learn something!

Richard A. Green, DDS, FAGD, MBA, is the director of business systems development of The Pankey Institute and is responsible for developing the business systems and financial management portion of the Institute's curriculum. You may contact Dr. Green by phone at (305) 428-5547 or by email at rgreen@pankey.org.

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