Speak the patient's language!

The greatest differences among dentists is our ability to understand patients' concerns, communicate the benefits of care, and influence them to accept it. Some dentists seem to have a gift for saying the right thing at the right time, while others can't talk their way out of a wet paper bag. I used to think dentists' barriers to becoming better communicators were from lack of interest.

Paul Homoly, DDS

"Knock, knock."
"Who's there?"
"Snow."
"Snow who?"
"Snow use talking to patients in your language."

The greatest differences among dentists is our ability to understand patients' concerns, communicate the benefits of care, and influence them to accept it. Some dentists seem to have a gift for saying the right thing at the right time, while others can't talk their way out of a wet paper bag. I used to think dentists' barriers to becoming better communicators were from lack of interest. After working with hundreds of dentists and teams, I'm convinced that the barrier is not lack of interest. The barrier is not knowing where to start.

Start here

Start boosting your patient communications skills by learning their language. The patient's language is simple; we used to know it before we went to dental school. In school, they taught us a different language. They taught us that tooth decay was called caries, fillings were restorations, caps were crowns, and pyorrhea was inflammatory degenerative disease - you get the picture! So when you say, "Mrs. Elms, teeth numbers 19 and 30 have large alloy restorations with marginal caries, and they need full restorations," you might as well be talking Latin to her! Get back to the laymen's language of dentistry - decay, fillings, infection, pus, wisdom teeth, and front and back teeth. This language may not sound scholarly to our buddies at the dental society, but it sounds great to patients.

Disability versus diagnosis

When talking to patients about their dental problems, speak in terms of disability, not diagnosis. Disability is what the patient is experiencing in his or her life as a result of the dental problem. Diagnosis is the clinical condition you feel is responsible for a patient's disability.

For example, Mrs. Elms says she feels embarrassed talking to customers at her dress shop because she thinks her teeth are dingy. You examine her and diagnose anterior tooth attrition, inadequate anterior guidance, and age/stress-related cervical abfractions. The better way of communicating with Mrs. Elms is in the language of her disability (embarrassment when talking to customers ), rather than addressing her in the language of her diagnosis (anterior tooth attrition) etc.

Here's a sample dialogue with Mrs. Elms in the language of diagnosis - our language."Mrs. Elms after examining you, I see that you have significant anterior tooth attrition on teeth numbers six though 11. This attrition has affected your ability to disclude your posterior teeth in eccentric movements. I'm also concerned that these teeth may fracture at the cervical neck due to advanced cervical abfraction. I recommend that we do six anterior laminate veneers, along with an equilibration."

Now, here's the same dialogue in the language of her disability - the patient's language. "Mrs. Elms, I can understand why you're embarrassed when you talk with customers. Your front teeth are worn and darker than they should be. We can make your front teeth look very attractive and give you confidence in your appearance by polishing away the dark enamel and replacing it with an enamel-like material. This process normally takes two appointments about three weeks apart. Let's look at your work schedule and find a time that's good for you."

Start now

Start using the language of disability in your patient discussions. It's been my experience that most team members say that their doctors use language that is far too technical for patients. Practice the language of disability with your team members. Use your next three consultations and present them to your team using only laymen's terms and the language of disability. Your patients will love it!

Dr. Paul Homoly coaches dental teams to implement reconstructive dentistry through his continuing-education workshops, private consulting, and seminars. This column is an excerpt from his new book, Isn't It Wonderful When Patients Say Yes? - Case Acceptance for Complete Dentistry. Dr. Homoly can be reached at (704) 342-4900 or via email at paul@paulhomoly.com. Visit his Web site at www.paulhomoly.com.

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