Trust issues, emotional intelligence and misaligned messaging all have an impact on patients’ willingness to develop enduring relationships with their dentists. So what more can dental professionals do to develop a rapport with those that occupy their chairs? Tracey Porter reports
When it comes to the professional spectrum, dentistry and auto mechanics could not seem further apart. For the former, a sterile working environment is essential, while for the latter it’s optional. The skills required for one can be acquired through on-the-job training while to gain suitable qualifications for the other requires a university degree.
But on closer inspection, the two disciplines have more in common than would first appear. For a start, both offer highly specialised services whose end goal is to help people—one to get back on the road, the other to remain on their feet with good oral health. Furthermore, both require the professional to convince people of the existence of a problem requiring correction, but which only the professional can see.
Specialist relationship expert Brett Churnin believes this is one of the biggest obstacles preventing dental professionals from gaining a clear understanding of the needs of their patients and developing effective communication strategies.
Churnin, general manager of client communication at dental management consultancy Prime Practice, and one of the principal architects of international dental-communication program Primespeak, says dentists, like mechanics, are artists on a minute scale. Churnin says dentists are intelligent and creative people who have been hardwired to identify and fix the problem in front of them without developing the emotional intelligence required to understand the needs of their patients. Compounding the issue is the fact most dental professionals recognise that their audience is often skeptical of their motivations.
“They’re struck by a couple of challenges,” says Churnin. “The emotional state that people have when they go to see a dentist, the patients’ past experiences and their pre-conceived beliefs that they might have about dentists and/or about dentistry.
“Clinically speaking, the concern arises from the fact that most of the time patients either don’t recognise they have a problem or the problem they think they have is only one part of a much bigger issue. They’ll come in and say they’ve got bleeding gums but it’s painless. They’ll put it down to the fact their toothbrush is too hard without recognising that there’s a disease or infection happening.”
Trust is everything
Carl Burroughs from Integrated Dental Marketing agrees trust is everything when it comes to effective client communication. Burroughs, who in addition to running his own promotions agency, co-founded dental consolidation group Dental Partners (now Maven Dental Group), says activities such as marketing are only there to create the opportunity to build a strong rapport with patients.
Irrespective of how commercial dentistry is becoming, once a strong bond between dentist and patient has been achieved patients are often very reluctant to move away from their dentist.
“Gone are the days that a patient will simply accept what their doctor tells them. Today, they will do their own research to determine if this is the correct recommendation for them. As much as this can be frustrating for some dentists to contend with, there is no turning back and as with all change, opportunity lies within.
“It’s actually more about what you don’t communicate than what you do. The benign chatter about what the nurse did on the weekend, holidays, etc. is not helpful. Patients need to be hearing about their dental needs and being calmed through the process,” he says.
Dr Toni Surace, a former principal dentist who now heads best-practice dental management group Momentum Management, believes establishing a rapport between dentist and patient is critical if the relationship is to progress.
“It’s actually more about what you don’t communicate than what you do. The benign chatter about what the nurse did on the weekend, holidays, etc. is not helpful. Patients need to be hearing about their dental needs and being calmed through the process.”—Carl Burroughs, managing director, Integrated Dental Marketing
She says good information flow between patients and their dentists has always been an important factor in cementing patient loyalty but owing to the number of practitioners in the field, patients now demand and deserve to be better understood.
“They are better informed and have more choice and we need exceptional communication skills to understand our patients’ emotional wants to be successful. Patients want to feel cared for and understood. This has always been the case, but patients have settled for less in the past.”
While Burroughs believes word-of-mouth referrals are the best way to start communicating with a potential new patient “because they are a litmus test for the health of the practice”, Dr Surace argues the easiest way to open the communication lines between a dentist and their patient is for the dental professional to open his or her ears.
“Listen with the intent of understanding, reflect back what you have heard with ‘active listening’ techniques and truly understand your patient. This costs nothing and ensures a solid relationship is established.
“Another area that’s relatively new for dental practices is how to capitalise on social media to communicate with patients and their prospective client base. Practices need to be active and responsive online. Not only is it imperative for keeping in touch with your patients, but it’s important to build and maintain a community presence and in generating reviews and positive word of mouth,” Dr Surace says.
All experts agree body language and props, when used appropriately, also have a part to play in assisting dental clinicians to understand the needs of their patients and vice versa.
Burroughs says there are a plethora of tools available expressly for this purpose.
“The best of these is the inter-oral camera; if a patient is not motivated to fix a tooth when they have seen it on a monitor, they will never be motivated. However, many tools can be used to support the education process, from video on a website, props and information sheets.”
While agreeing models, photos, computer programs and apps are all good aids to help with communication, Dr Surace says nothing is better than an open discussion with the patient.
“It is a good idea to know about a patient’s communication preferences or behavioral type to facilitate the patient’s understanding. Having knowledge of these factors will ensure the patient receives the information in the way they understand it best.”
Burroughs agrees that for all the recent changes within the profession, the future is brightest for those who listen to what their patients need, and work hard to cater for this. This could involve joining toastmasters, taking elocution lessons or attending communications courses run for the broader business community, he says.
“If your patients want to see you at 6am because they now commute two hours to work each day—open at 6am. If they want to pay dentistry off over a number of weeks, create payment programs. Most of all, show empathy at all times. The bottom line is those businesses who adapt to what the public actually want will flourish, while those who hang on to a bygone era are ultimately doomed.”