Helping manage patient expectations

March 1, 2004
Recently, I've been thinking about technological changes in dentistry, especially how improvements in technology have changed the way we manage patient expectations.

Steve Lynch, DMD

Recently, I've been thinking about technological changes in dentistry, especially how improvements in technology have changed the way we manage patient expectations. My thoughts focused on how much more involved my patients have become in their treatment outcomes since I installed DEXIS digital radiography equipment in my office.

In an important sense, even as recently as 15 years ago, the term "manage expectations" wasn't really applicable to dentistry. That's because patients were, almost literally, in the dark about their dental treatment. In fact, I think of the time before digital radiography as the "dark ages." I use that term for two reasons.

First, before digital X-rays, patients were in the dark when it came to understanding the basis for the treatment dentists were recommending. That was because it was virtually impossible for them to clearly see what was revealed on the tiny two-inch by two-inch strip of film dentists produced as their radiographs.

Second, those film X-ray images were so dark that it was impossible for anyone without a trained eye to make sense of them. They were virtually useless in explaining problems to patients, so the idea of managing expectations for treatment really didn't apply.

How things have changed!

While no one will deny that film X-rays were an important step forward in improving dentistry, with the advent of digital radiography a little more than a decade ago, film X-rays quickly became outmoded. Today, they are no longer an effective analytical tool, but a tool that helps perpetuate the dark ages of dentistry.

Those are strong words, so let me explain what I mean. First, patient education is one of the most important things we can do in our practices. Patient education is the basis for managing expectations.

Using digital radiography, my team and I can explain exactly what problems have been found and what needs to be done about them. The software can enhance and highlight certain areas of the large, bright images that are displayed instantly on a computer screen after the X-ray has been taken.

My patients are no longer "in the dark" about the treatments I am recommending. They can see it all very clearly and colorfully right in front of them. No more tiny, dark, unreadable film images.

In our office, though, we don't wait until patients are in the chair before we begin to manage expectations. We start as soon as they come through the door by using digital radiography to help sell them on our way of dentistry. Our digital X-ray system is one of the most important marketing tools in our office. A team member in my office explains to each new patient that we have digital radiography and that it's one way we help improve patient outcomes for dental treatment. That's the beginning of managing expectations — creating them in the first place. We want our patients to expect the safest and best treatment.

As new patients are given a tour of the office, one of our team members explains more about digital radiography. One of the first things we emphasize is that digital radiography reduces their exposure to radiation by as much as 80 percent to 90 percent, depending on the equipment and film used in offices that haven't installed digital X-ray equipment.

Setting and managing expectations continues when patients actually see the images on the screen. It begins with the "Wow!" factor. That's the reaction from almost all patients when they see the large, clear picture on the computer screen. And when we use the image-enhancement capabilities, including color and image enlargement, their education really begins. They can clearly see the basis of the treatment I'm recommending, and they're grateful to be part of the process.

Before digital radiography, we didn't think too much about managing patient expectations. We simply didn't have the educational tools necessary to manage expectations, and we weren't as aware of how to market our services by creating expectations. It's safe to say that the dark ages persisted until a relatively short time ago. It's also safe to say that, unfortunately, they still exist in practices that don't have digital radiography. We've entered a new era characterized by new technology and a new sense of how to manage patient expectations. There's no longer any excuse for keeping patients in the dark about their treatment.

Steve P. Lynch, DMD, is in private practice in Oxford, Ala. Since 1995, he has been teaching dentists, team members, dental students and faculty the applications of lasers and digital radiography. You may reach Dr. Lynch by e-mail at [email protected], or visit his Web site at for more information.

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