Interactive patient education — Helping your patients know what you know.

It's hard to agree to something you don't understand. Imagine you are at your auto mechanic's shop, and he tells you that your car needs significant work.

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by Bob Rondeau, DMD

It's hard to agree to something you don't understand. Imagine you are at your auto mechanic's shop, and he tells you that your car needs significant work. "What?" you ask. You had just brought it in for an oil and filter change and hadn't noticed any problems with it! How could this be?

"Well," the mechanic replies, "your timing belt needs to be changed, your brake pads are worn down so they're nearly metal-on-metal, and your fuel injectors need to be cleaned. Oh ... and your fan belt could also stand to be replaced."

You're immediately on the defensive. Your engine sounds fine; the brakes have been working well. You've noticed no problems whatsoever. You're merely there for routine maintenance!

The mechanic sees the skepticism in your eyes, and says, "Trust me. In the long run, fixing these problems now will be much less expensive for you than doing nothing and waiting until they become worse."

Despite his warning, you leave the shop after only an oil and filter change. "He's just trying to rip me off; you can't trust these guys," you think.

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The cautious part of you just wouldn't allow you to take the mechanic's word for it. But the reality is, your car really did need the repairs he suggested. If you'd been able to see the problem and how he diagnosed it, and if you saw what the consequences of inaction would be, instead of just hearing him tell you, you would have been far more open to his recommendations. In fact, you probably would have had the work done that day.

It's no different for your patients
When you suggest to a patient that her old amalgam fillings should be replaced, or that she really should receive some therapy to arrest the progression of her periodontal breakdown, it's easy for her to apply her "skeptic's filter" to your message and discount what you say. This is especially true once she hears that the treatment you recommend will require significant out-of-pocket expense.

Your patient doesn't understand that her old amalgam fillings could split her tooth. She doesn't even know that her periodontal disease needs to be addressed now, while it's in an early phase. Simply put, your patient doesn't recognize that there's a problem. She doesn't understand her treatment options, so she's not moved to make a decision. And she has no idea what the consequences to her oral health and her budget will be if she chooses not to receive treatment.

The solution? Multimedia patient education
Most people are visual learners, yet, as dentists, we continue to explain complex diagnoses, treatments, and procedures verbally. The result is that patients only retain a small percentage of what you tell them, and this retention lessens as time goes on; soon the problem — and your proposed solution — is forgotten.

Even if patients schedule an appointment to have the work done, when the time approaches and they've forgotten why it was important in the first place, it's easy to pick up the phone and cancel. They don't feel responsible for their dental health; there's no mental picture of the problem, the consequences, or the beautiful results after the treatment is performed.

Enter multimedia patient education. In a matter of minutes, patient-education programs allow you to demonstrate visually the choices available to your patients to rectify their problems and improve their dental health. And when coupled with an intraoral camera, your patients will see both the problem and the solution, and likely will be motivated to accept your treatment recommendation.

A level playing field
When you see a patient for the first time, you have no idea what her preconceived notions about dentistry are. What does she know about dental health, modern dental procedures, aesthetics, and prevention? What has she been told by her previous dentist? What has she not been told?

Multimedia patient education solves this dilemma by providing accurate, thorough, concise explanations, so every patient gets the same message. This levels the playing field.

"We have an interactive patient-education program in every operatory and consult room. We show every new patient a co-diagnosis presentation before the initial exam. This establishes a common basis for discussing the results of the exam," says Debra Gray King, DDS, FAACD, who practices in Atlanta.

Because of the proliferation of information on the Internet and other media, people are taking an increasingly active role in their health care, so many will appreciate your willingness to provide them with this extra level of service. Make it the patients' choice about how much information they would like. For example, ask if they would like to see a presentation on the alternatives for restoration materials, so they will know the pros and cons of each. Not only will you be boosting your patients' dental IQ, you'll also be demonstrating respect for them as well as setting yourself apart as a doctor who provides an enhanced level of patient care. This builds the foundation not only for case acceptance, but also for effective communication and a long-term relationship with your patients.

No selling, no pressure
Interactive patient-education programs remove the pressure to "sell dentistry" from you. You no longer need to work to convince your patients that treatment is needed.

Simply discover the patient's dental health goals via the patient interview, devise a treatment plan that aligns with those goals, and then show interactive patient-education segments that clearly lay out their problems and solutions. The treatment decision then becomes obvious to the patient, with no additional effort from you.

"I used to look like some kind of salesman," says Les Prasad, DDS, of North Attleboro, Mass. "But now I don't need to do that. I show the teeth on the intraoral camera, immediately flip the button to a patient-education program, and when it's over, the patient turns to me and says, 'When should we do this, Doc?' Now I don't have to tell them anything; I just show them, and they ask me questions. It's such a wonderful method, because I don't come across like a salesman," he says.

Dr. Prasad's approach represents the new model of dental communication — a model based on facilitation that empowers patients to make informed dental health decisions that are right for them and that they feel good about.

Patient education that's visual and interactive helps your patients clarify their thinking and integrate new knowledge.

  • It reinforces their understanding and puts them in the position to own their dental health decisions.
  • It gives them confidence, and it gives you credibility.
  • It's a neutral, consistent, third-party message that presents all the options in layperson's terms.
  • You're no longer repeating the same message to try to get your patients to comply.

When your patients understand their unique dental issues and the treatment options available to them, they see you as their advocate, helping them to understand their condition and treatment choices.

Without this understanding, patients can feel overwhelmed and even coerced, which is not a climate that's conducive to case acceptance or a win/win, long-term relationship.

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