If you do what you've always done, you will receive the same results you've always achieved. This post is about how to achieve a higher level of treatment acceptance from patients in need of comprehensive dental care.
You will be able to read a bit about what you can do to become better at communicating with your patients in a way that makes them want to invest in the treatment they need. It is NOT about how we can use clever techniques to manipulate or force patients into anything. Because I take a stand against any kind of manipulation, pressure or coercion.
If dentists and their teams are to become more adept at getting patients to accept the treatment they need, we need to persistently practice better communication with patients. Not just once, but throughout our careers.
During my 18-year career as a practicing dentist, I have seen far too many patients who never received the treatment they objectively needed. I'm sure the same is true for you.
It wasn't because the patients didn't want healthy, well-functioning and beautiful teeth. But because they had never been presented with optimal treatment options in a way that made them want to invest in the treatment they needed.
As a consequence, they ended up with teeth (or lack of teeth) that did not meet their own expectations and desires for a functional and beautiful set of teeth. Sometimes they only realised the situation they had got into - or were getting into too late. This was typically at a time in their lives when they no longer had the means to provide the treatment they wanted.
I felt sorry for those patients.
So I set out early to become better at communicating with my patients. To avoid them to end up in similar situations on my watch.
Are you following us on LinkedIn?
Here I regularly post tips, tricks and motivational posts about everything we didn't learn at dental school. This includes service, sales and clinic optimisation.
There are people who spend 5 years at universities and business schools to become proficient in sales and marketing. In this light, I believe that the topic of this blog post should be seen as a relatively broad and complex topic. It will therefore not be possible for me to do anything else than scratch the surface of the subject and give you a little self-test at the end.
I also think it would be a mistake to believe that in a single evening course we can make ourselves experts in patient communication. We can acquire a lot of new knowledge. But new knowledge needs to be practised again and again in order to come into effect in practice. You can choose to set aside time to practise with your team, or you can practise on the patients you see in your dental practice.
If you choose the latter, I always recommend that you start by practicing on your new patients. Because they don't know how you usually do things at your place. So they won't be surprised by new approaches, just as they won't notice when you do something "wrong".
Getting better at communicating is completely like when we go to courses to learn new dental skills. Here too, we need to understand the theory first and then practice again and again in the practice. Otherwise, our knowledge will never be implemented. If that happens, the course has just been expensive entertainment.
The industry's biggest taboo
In the dentistry, there is a big taboo associated with selling treatment. The taboo is so great that dentists globally have coined the term: "treatment acceptance" or "case acceptance", as alternative descriptions of the word "sale".
Rather than confusing more than is strictly necessary, I will henceforth call it what it is and refer to the processes and communications that can potentially lead to a transaction involving payment for a service or product as: "sales".
Sales should be perceived positively
Basically, sales is about finding out what the customer wants and then delivering it to the customer. It is as simple as that and I assume you agree with me that this definition does not put any pressure on the customers (patients)?
There doesn't have to be anything "wrong" or "bad" about selling a service or product. I certainly don't assume that you think all clothing manufacturers, farmers, supermarkets, DIY stores, wind farms, restaurants, computer manufacturers, petrol stations, hotels and many, many others are deeply irresponsible because they sell something?
Within our customer segment, I would just like to emphasize the importance of the dentist constantly making sure that patients NEVER get recommended or performed treatment without professional indication!
Insufficient education and training
Lack of knowledge tends to create misconceptions and myths. When it comes to sales, this is no exception. Lack of knowledge about a necessary evil tends to create uncertainty. When we have never received any formal training or education in communicating with patients, talking about sales creates a great deal of uncertainty.
It's probably because of this uncertainty that many dentists experience sales as something that brings to mind the truly burdensome used car salesmen we've seen in American movies and TV shows.
It is certainly wrong to generalise and put all used car dealers in the same category. However, the general and caricatured perception of the used car dealer is a good illustration of what I will try to illustrate in a moment. So if you know a car dealer, the following is not meant as a personal attack on him or the industry in general.
Typical salespeople in the dental sector
In the dental industry, we have predominantly two types of salespeople - both of whom have relative difficulty getting patients to accept treatment:
The used car dealer
Is so focused on selling the treatment that he doesn't even listen or notice the patient's wishes, feelings, values or priorities in life. It's all about getting the patient to say "yes" to the treatment that the dentist thinks is right for the patient. So whatever it takes to get the patient to accept treatment, that's the right way to do it.
This method is often considered an unethical and indecent way to sell treatment.
This form of communication scares away a huge number of patients and gives dentists a really bad reputation. It is probably this category that most colleagues fear to be associated with. So they choose a completely different model:
The Tour Guide
This is probably the most common way of trying to sell treatment in modern dentistry. Unfortunately, the method is as ineffective as the used car salesman's method. Like the used car dealer, the tour guide does not succeed in getting the patient to accept treatment (which is also unethical in principle, as too many patients do not receive the treatment they need). When that happens, their health is actually impaired as a result of the tourguide not seeking the sale)
The tour guide shows around, informs and educates her patients about everything she can see in the patient's mouth. Every question is answered knowledgeably and professionally. The Tour Guide's primary task is to educate patients to understand everything about the mouth, what works, what doesn't work and how to perform treatment. Add to that all the possible treatments that can be utilized.
The problem is that the tour guide never focuses on getting acceptance for treatment. Because the tour guide's main job is to make sure the patient gets a great experience out of the tour. Based on the motto: "If only the patient understands everything that is wrong and knows about all the options for treatment, then they will definitely choose the best possible treatment, as rationally it is the absolute best option".
And then you stand there and smile. The patient is waiting. The dentist waits... and at some point the patient says: "I'll think about it" and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
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The path to acceptance
If we are to succeed in getting patients to accept the treatment that we believe is the most appropriate, we need to improve our communication skills. I think we can agree that the used car dealer approach is not working. It typically pushes patients to accept a treatment they are not ready for.
The tour guide model doesn't work either. Because here we don't get the patient's acceptance either. They get tired of listening to us before we even make a recommendation. If it comes at all.
Trust, desires and emotions
We have to use other methods to help our patients better.
All acceptance of treatment is based on one basic premise: trust.
So we have to make sure the patient trusts us.
Without trust, everything else is meaningless.
In addition to trust, we need to know something about what the patient wants. Last but not least: why the patient wants this.
When you see the list below, it may seem that there is a long way to go before you can reach acceptance of treatment. In reality, it is not very time-consuming once you have practised the process. However if it was really easy - everybody would be doing it already.
We need to be better listeners with the intention of becoming wiser
We need to stop talking so much that patients are drowning in information
We need to focus on the value the patient will experience from the treatment. The patient's perceived value is related to the reason behind the patient's desire - not our perception of a healthy mouth.
We need to recognise the patient's current situation in life and the priorities the patient has. Based on this, we need to help the patient find ways to finance the treatment that the patient wants.
Throughout the process, we must keep the focus on guiding the patient towards a decision to invest in optimal treatment.
A paradigm shift
To get more patients to invest in better and more comprehensive oral health, we need to accept a paradigm shift.
Dentists generally perceive dental treatment as a need. This is in line with our training and the observations we have made in our practice. Here we can see with our own eyes what happens when patients do not take care of their teeth.
We know the consequences and, perhaps for that very reason, tend to believe that patients share our experience of value, if only we tell them about the diagnoses and possibly the consequences of not treating the teeth.
The challenge is that patients are as uninterested in buying something they need as we are. For example, how interested are you in visiting 7 different garages to find the nicest place to have your car serviced? Or how about visiting 5 different DIY stores to find a nicer thermostat?
Try to compare that with your interest in finding a new bag, new shoes, a new car or similar.
Can you feel the difference?
Just like any other human being, patients are willing to pay for anything they want. That's why it's so important that we find out what patients want first. Because only with this knowledge are we able to present our recommended treatment in a way that speaks to the patient's wishes.
Want to learn more about how to better communicate with your patients?
Then sign up for the evening course: Patient Communication 2.0 - press the button below and read more.
How many patients accept treatment?
The golden rule is: about 65% should accept comprehensive treatment.
If 100% of your patients accept all the treatment you recommend, it is probably because you only present treatment to those patients you know will accept it.
If less than 65% accept your recommendations, it is typically because you lack communication skills or training.
15-20% are ready to start right away
15-20% are ready to start treatment after 6 months
70-80% are ready to start treatment only after 18 months!
Based on the statistics, it may be good to remind yourself that a "no" does not have to be a "no" forever. As long as the patient keeps coming to the practice, trust is intact. You've managed to unstress the patient, you've shown you understand the patient's wishes, values and priorities in life and shown you're willing to hold the patient's hand until the patient is ready to start treatment... and you have had a program of following up with the patient without pressuring the patient for acceptance.
If you persistently present comprehensive treatment to your patients, something magical happens after 1-2 years. This is when patients start calling the practice and asking for the comprehensive treatment that you presented in the past.
I am reaching the maximum length of my blog post. My hope is that you have become interested in expanding your communication toolbox. I have no illusions that you will find patient communication as interesting as I do. But I hope that I have sparked your curiosity and that you too can become better at communicating with your patients. Because when we manage to communicate in ways that make patients want to invest in the care they need, it opens up opportunities to:
Help more patients receive comprehensive treatment
Bring your skills into action and improve job satisfaction
Reduce stress levels in the office
While increasing productivity
Improve patient satisfaction
Build an amazing brand
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Many kind regards
Jesper Hatt DDS
Phone: +41 78 268 00 78