Anticipation: Meeting your patient's fundamental needs

March 1, 2004
Your patients have basic expectations about their care. Give them the "gift" of anticipating their needs and exceeding their expectations

by MaryBeth Head

Remember the ketchup commercial from the 1970s that featured the popular Carly Simon song? "Anticipation is making me wait U it's keeping me waiting U"

What does ketchup have to do with anticipation? Everything — if your fries are getting cold! It can be frustrating when you have an expectation — especially one you consider a "no-brainer" — and no one anticipates your need.

As a waitress during my college years, anticipation was the one thing that determined whether my tips were exceptional. I learned quickly how to anticipate the patrons' needs. I was pretty sure about most of their expectations. For example, if the customer ordered french fries, I made sure the ketchup was there before the fries arrived. When their beverages were half empty, I refilled them. I made a point to discern the activities at a table before I approached so I didn't interrupt an intimate moment or catch a customer with a full mouth of food. I learned to gauge when one course would be finished and to time the next one so it came out at the perfect moment.

And for those things I couldn't predict, I asked. Were the customers interested in hearing about the specials not listed on the menu? Did they want the appetizer and the salad to come separately? Would they like to dine leisurely or were they hoping to catch a show after dinner? Did they want to see the dessert tray? I considered myself the "cruise director" for their dining experience, and my dedication resulted in happy patrons, generous tips, and many repeat customers — the lifeblood of the restaurant business.

Achieving this level of service required me to work with my colleagues on a different level as well. Not only did I have to anticipate the needs of my diners, I also had to anticipate my collaborations with the bartender, kitchen staff, and chef. I had to recognize their responsibility to fulfill other requests, assess how busy they were, and support them when they needed help. It meant anticipating the right time to give an order to the chef. I also learned how to ascertain potential problems during peak times so I could keep my patrons informed and let them know when their orders would be ready. I also had to be discriminating about the food coming out of the kitchen and anticipate the customer's response, as well as that of the chef when a dissatisfied patron returned an order.

Anticipation helped me provide order and control. This skill meant I was less likely to overlook things that were important to customers. When patrons became repeat customers, it demonstrated that they trusted me to make sure their experiences lived up to their expectations.

The same is true with dentists and their practices. Anticipating the needs of your patients provides order, control, and, most important, trust. Some people feel intimidated in new situations, especially in a clinical setting where the care focuses on a part of their body. For some, going to the dentist is a huge risk. They are unlikely to speak up or address issues that make them uncomfortable, which detracts from their care. When you resolve something in anticipation of your patients' needs, they will be less likely to experience the awkward feeling of exposing their fears or making a request.

Anticipating your patients' needs fosters trust. It makes them feel you understand them. It provides a needed connection that gets your relationship off the ground and keeps it on track. A comfortable, trusting relationship helps patients relax and be receptive. They also will be more at ease asking questions and sharing with you and your staff. Ultimately, this can make the difference in their willingness to accept your findings and treatment recommendations.

Much like the restaurant business, dentists can anticipate and meet many patient needs before the first appointment. These needs are the "givens" in excellent patient care but are often overlooked. Patients expect:

— Timely appointments
— Thorough care
— A professional staff
— Clean and comfortable reception rooms and clinical areas

You can probably come up with a dozen or more of these fundamental patient needs. On the other hand, some situations require you to ask questions of your patients and to clarify their needs. It might be as simple as asking them if they would like to visit the restroom before you begin a lengthy procedure.

Many issues require the staff to anticipate internal needs. Keeping the practice running smoothly and keeping production at its peak requires conscious anticipation of needs based on ever-changing events — everything from when the doctor will be available for a hygiene check to determining when perfecting a bite will cause him to fall behind. You can anticipate what will happen if the lab doesn't return a case in time for an appointment. You can anticipate the impact on the schedule if one of your key employees is out sick. You may not be able to prevent them altogether, but if you address these events before they negatively affect the flow of operations, you can adapt and find ways to prevent them from throwing everyone into chaos.

Be careful to make the distinction between anticipation based on fact and assumptions. Assumptions tend to get us into trouble. We make assumptions from our own past experiences and make generalizations based on historical events that may not apply to the current situation.

Anticipation means looking ahead at what might occur and determining what might be needed. Once you anticipate, go one step further to verbalize your thoughts and ask questions to determine how you should respond.

Anticipation exercise

Take some time with your staff to identify those things you can and cannot anticipate. Evaluate how these events have been handled in the past. This will help both doctor and staff provide for the needs of patients and co-workers while structuring order, control, and purpose in everything you do.

Step one: External

Identify as many things as you can that can be anticipated before your patients arrive. (It may help to think more like a patient and less like a staff member.)

Why can these things be anticipated?
Now, identify as many things as you can that you would not be able to anticipate without further information.

How would you find out?
Can you control these events? If so, how?
What can we do to prevent them altogether?

Step two: Internal

Identify all those things that might throw the practice out of sync.

How can you anticipate these factors?
When could you not anticipate them?
Can you control these events? If so, how?
What can we do to prevent them altogether?

Step three: Share your answers with us. Email the author at [email protected] or Sandy Roth at [email protected].

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