Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Imagine you overhear the following phone conversation at the reception:
"Hi Mr. Jones.... aha... Well you want to make an appointment to have 4 e-max crowns done on the right side of your lower mouth? Aha. Yes and you say you have already prepaid the full amount of the treatment today?.... Well which time suits you best - mornings or afternoons? Ok - how about Tuesday at 9 or next Thursday at 10?... Shall we say Tuesday at 9? Then I'll look forward to seeing you on Tuesday. Have a really nice day Mr. Jones."
I heard this kind of conversation regularly in my clinic when I was practising. If you want to know a bit more about what we did to get these kinds of patients into the clinic, this blog post is for you.
It's been a few weeks since I last wrote a blog post. During the month of September, I have been giving lectures and training clinics most days of the week, visiting 6 different countries to teach. Although I try to write a little while I'm on the road, there haven't been enough free hours to pass on useful knowledge to you.
But now I am back and hope this blog post about patient communication during times of crisis will inspire you.
Changed conditions in the dental practices
More and more dentists are approaching us to learn more about how they can improve their patient communication and get patients to accept treatment. They find their patients have to "think about" their treatment proposals and their appointment books are plagued by an increasing number of cancellations and no-shows. In other words, the crisis is starting to affect the dental profession as well.
This post is about how you should communicate with your patients during a crisis and what benefits it will bring you in the short and long term.
Before you read on, I would like to point out that I strongly disagree with any form of communication that pressures or manipulates patients into accepting treatment. Just as I recommend that you never recommend or initiate treatment without a professional indication.
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Has it been too easy?
Since corona ravaged the world, most dentists have been busy. Patients have accepted the treatment they have been recommended in large numbers, as a natural consequence of the fact that the world was entering a new boom. There were huge fortunes saved up that had not been spent on the usual travel, home renovation projects and new cars. The upturn was clearly reflected in a glowing property market and then an almost euphoric holiday home market. Everything that was put up for sale was snapped up.
However, some sad events in Eastern Europe temporarily put an end to the party. Inflation began to roar, while national banks slowly tried to raise interest rates, but at a pace that would not end the good mood in disaster. More and more news media began to include the word "crisis" in their headlines, leading an increasing number of citizens to believe that they no longer had enough money to survive.
I am not saying that there are no citizens suffering from the current financial changes. There will always be people who get caught up in change. But just as there is a large group of people who have come under financial pressure, there are just as many who have more money between their hands than they have ever had. But having a general belief that we are suffering a financial crisis means that people are acting as if they have lost their fortunes overnight.
Dentistry - An industry under pressure
The dental industry has become somewhat more cyclical than it has been in the past. Dental practice owners have generally been too slow to adapt their core business to the changes the industry has faced over the last 30 years. This has led to a squeeze on the finances of the vast majority of dental practices, which has been partially offset by advanced therapies.
The challenges arise when patients go into a mental state of crisis. For this leads them to wait to have the more costly treatments performed such as: prosthetic reconstructions, implant treatments and orthodontics. At national level, I am already hearing that many dental practices are starting to experience more and more cancellations and no-shows, which is a natural consequence of the crisis rhetoric we are exposed to daily in the media.
In what follows, I describe techniques for exerting influence on those of our patients who have complex issues. Simply put, these are mostly patients with treatment needs of more than €4,000. Those patients with lesser treatment needs can often be persuaded to accept treatment with communication methods that are within our usual comfort zone. Just as we can optimise acceptance by adopting clever little phrases that make our messages sharper.
When I deal with the acceptance of the more complex treatments, it is because this is where we can have a significantly more balanced working day in the practice in the long term, which creates greater happiness for ourselves, our team and the patients. Just as it affects the finances of the practice in a more positive way than if we just focus on the simpler treatments.
What to do?
The most effective thing you can do to get more patients asking for the comprehensive treatment they need is to talk to them about how they want their teeth to be in the future.
Too often, dentists take full responsibility for patients' treatment plan and treatment sequence. We simply fail to inform patients about the conditions of their teeth and the possible consequences that opting out of treatment may lead to in the future.
This often happens quite unconsciously, either because we think we have informed patients or for the sake of the financial situation we think patients are in.
Herein lies two challenges.
Patients rarely understand what we tell them unless we show them good clinical photos of the upper and lower jaw. Or better yet: Before-After full face portrait photos of patients you've treated yourself, where you've been allowed to attach a relevant story to the photos.
As dentists, we are not trained to diagnose patients' financial capability. Just as we are not trained to listen properly to what patients are really saying when they express that they do not have the money for treatment.
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It is far easier for a patient to understand their own dental status if you show the patient a good photo of their own upper and lower jaw on a relatively large screen.
If you want the best tip of all, to be successful in presenting more comprehensive care, it is to get good at taking clinical photos of patients. Not with an intraoral camera but full jaw photos with a DSLR camera or if necessary with a smartphone.
If you don't have experience taking clinical photos, you might as well start practicing right away.
The most effective way is to familiarise yourself with how the camera you want to use works (SLR/DSLR cameras are clearly the best, but smaller ones, such as a smartphone, can also do the trick. If you know what you're doing and how to get around the challenges of clinical photography with smartphones) and then get started taking photos of as many patients in as short a time as possible.
With a gaping appointment book, you - or your team - have every opportunity to practice clinical photography. You "just" choose to take photos of all patients where there is a blank appointment afterwards.
It's no secret that the learning curve is long and steep when it comes to taking good clinical photos. With the right training, you can easily make it shorter and flatter. My recommendation is to invest time and money in a good hands-on photo course for dental professionals.
If you want some tips and an overview of how your clinical photos should look, feel free to use this guide i made for AligerService. Here you will also find links to the smart phone software I recommend, if you do not want to use a DSLR camera. (Just remember the many challenges you will have with the wide angle of the smartphone optics)
How do you listen to your patients?
It may have provoked you a bit when I wrote that we are not trained to listen properly to what patients are really saying. The fact is that we very often make a lot of assumptions about the patient based on very little information.
This way of making quick conclusions (diagnoses) coincides with the way we are trained to be dentists. In a very short time, we are able to make most basic diagnoses relatively quickly and at the same rapid pace, devise and present a treatment plan. An automatic response simply starts in our brain when we see, for example, caries combined with a filling covering 2/3 of a tooth.
When it comes to teeth, this automated function in our brain often works just fine. When it comes to patient communication, it almost always gets in the way of our good intentions. Because patients are not the same and all carry a host of individual challenges in the backpack of personal desires, dreams and priorities that they always carry around. If we are to have any chance of influencing our patients, we therefore need to understand them better.
Understanding your patient... the right way
It takes time to understand your patients. Not whole hours and half hours, but often just a few minutes, combined with the knowledge our teams have gathered about patients over the years, through the conversations they have had with patients. The minutes we spend communicating with patients should follow the 80/20 rule:
The patient talks 80% of the time
The dentist talks 20% of the time.
Too often we are too busy thinking about all kinds of other things during our conversation with the patient. Including what we are going to say next. Ofrten to the point that we forget to listen to the patient. Or we spend all our time talking to the patient, who sits and gets more and more glazed eyes, while they wait nicely for us to finish talking so they can be allowed to leave.
If we want to influence our patients to invest in the treatment they need, we have to listen to them with the intention of understanding them. Like REALY understand them. Only when patients feel heard, seen and acknowledged do they begin to open up to us. It is only when we sit down and listen in this way that we can begin to influence patients with complex treatment needs.
During the current crisis, you will find that a large proportion of your patients say things like: "I'll think about that" when you present complex treatment options. As you know, this means "no thanks". Here it is important to remember that "no thanks" now, does not mean that the patient will never have the treatment done. The patient is just not ready right now. But when the crisis is over, the patient feels safe and priorities fall into place in the patient's life, you will have a patient who comes of their own accord and asks for the treatment you presented earlier.
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Foundation for success
So right now, it's basically about spending time presenting your patients with the ideal treatment in a way that embraces the patient as a person and avoids stressing the patient. If you are able to act as the patient's advocate, whom the patient trusts and relies on. With the right tools, you will be able to present complex and costly treatment plans that your patients will come back to ask for.
Once you have done this continuously over time, you will begin to hear conversations at the front desk like the one I described in the introduction on a regular basis.
When I teach patient communication courses, I typically spend half a day or a full day building a solid foundation of basic knowledge that can be applied in practice and produce results right away. The blog format is too compressed to convey all the details associated with competent patient communication. Still, I hope I've been able to inspire you to explore new approaches to getting patients who demand comprehensive care.
If you have any questions about the content of the blog, please feel free to write or call me.
Many kind regards
Jesper Hatt DDS
T: +45 61272228