If you are a dental professional and reading this article, then more than likely you feel like your patients do not “listen to you” or follow your guidance. You are not alone!

Dentistry is a tough profession. Not only do dental professionals have to work in small, confined places, they are working on a very sensitive area of the body, on patients that are often times anxious. Many of them state they “hate being here” the very first time you meet them! 

In dental school, dentists are taught the technical aspects of dentistry and in clinics, clinical procedures and treatment plans are discussed with faculty and patients alike with little consideration for how or if patients understand the procedure or treatment plan presented. In fact, many times patients in dental school settings are more likely to be told what needs to be done versus them actually understanding treatment needs and options.

Fast forward to graduation and the dentist goes out into the “real” world, taking what he or she has learned in dental school and ready to take on the world. And so, the process begins, like it did in dental school: the dentist sees the patient, takes x-rays, charts existing restorations and completes a periodontal charting, then reviews the information that has been gathered and formulates a diagnosis. From this, a treatment plan is put together and presented to the patient (who, many times, is completely unaware of his or her current dental condition) with the full expectation that they will accept the treatment plan.  After all, you are the dental professional with years of education and excellent technical skills.

But then it happens: the patient either has little or no questions or they state, “my teeth feel fine doctor.” The dentist then attempts to “convince” the patient for a brief period of time why he or she needs the treatment plan that has been presented.  Everything seems fine, then the patient heads to the front office area where they get scheduled for treatment. Sounds easy right? 

Wrong! It is then that the patient will often tell our front office team members, “I’ll think about it” or “I’ll call back later” or “I think I’m fine” and leave the office without scheduling; or, in the worst case, they leave and never come back! 

Does this sound familiar? If so, then your patients are not “hearing” you! Dentistry is very technical in nature, but there is an even bigger (and just as - or even more – important) part: the behavioral piece!  In order for us to be successful in dentistry, we not only have to be successful in the technical portion of dentistry, but also in the behavioral portion. If the dental professional cannot connect with patients in a behavioral aspect, then there will be little to no dentistry completed!  

Create an emotional response to dental treatment

Whether our patients are purchasing a brand new TV or a crown on a tooth, the process of decision making is processed in the brain the same way (unless they are in pain, which in itself evokes an emotional state).  It all begins with an emotional-based process or “feeling” that is then reinforced with the logical part of the brain. 

When our patients are purchasing that new TV, they “want” to purchase it and they can imagine that great new picture it will have (emotional), and then think about all the reasons they either want, need or desire that new TV to reinforce the decision that has been made. When dental professionals tell patients, “you have a cavity in your tooth,” oftentimes the patient is unaware of the situation, which then evokes an emotional response.  And then, while the patient is processing this, the dentist begins discussing the condition of the tooth and all the reasons “why” the patient needs to do it.  At this point, the dental professional is playing more to the logical side of the brain first (we are talking about all the reasons why they should do it) versus the emotional side (how they feel) - hence, the reason why many patients do not hear us.

Many times, dental professionals shower their patients with all the technical information, but either overlook or never address the emotional portion/how we can connect with our patients.  So what are we to do? 

First, we have to remember that we all make decisions that begin with an emotional component. Without emotion, it would be almost impossible for any of us to “hear” what others are saying. In fact, none of us can “hear” the logical portion of decision-making without the emotional component, which can either support or negate the logical portion. 

The key here is this: emotions can either support or negate logic and thus, one of the biggest emotions that we deal with in dentistry on a daily basis is fear, and can be a huge reason why patients do not “hear” the logic of their dental conditions. So when your patients do not remember or “hear” some of the conversation that has occurred in the operatory, it may be as simple as their fear (emotion), among many other things, overpowering their logical side of their brains. 

In order for us to connect with our patients and to help them be “emotionally engaged” in their overall oral health, we have to be aware of this and attempt to understand where our patients are on their “emotional” journey and connect with them on their level. Through this, we allow them to become aware of their oral conditions, and then move them toward better oral health. Sounds easy enough, right? 

Not really, because every person sitting in your chair has a whole life of experiences that impact particular emotions (good or bad) and make every person unique. The key takeaway point here is this:  start “thinking” differently about how we communicate with our patients on a daily basis and be more intentional about the process.

Let’s face it, if our patients were fully engaged in their dental health and valued what we had to offer them, one of two scenarios would have happened:

A. They would have already had it all completed and committed to a dental office to maintain it. (so the only reason they are in your office now is they moved or changed dentists)

B. They would walk into your office, listened to you tell them what they need completed to have a healthy mouth, then get it all done and become a lifetime patient.

In reality, these patients that come in and “hear” your recommendations on their first visit and complete all of their treatment do exist, but they are extremely rare, and many times it is because - even after being gone from the dentist for years – they are ready to “hear” you! 

Co-discovery as key to case acceptance

One thing that can be effective in allowing your patients to “hear” you is to let them to co-discover things with you during their exam versus you telling them what is wrong with them.  A co-discovery process is one way that we can help our patients discover their dental conditions. Photos are a great, non-confrontational means to communicate conditions that are concerning without “lecturing” a bunch of “logical” conditions to our patients. 

As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and many times, photos will evoke an emotional response. Pictures will often make the patients say things like, “oh my, that looks terrible.  What can we do to fix that?”

When this occurs, we are now engaging the emotional part of the patient's brain, which is essential to the decision-making process. Now, they are actually asking you what can be done to fix things! 

Another way we can talk to patients so they “hear” us is to focus on using terms and life situations that they are familiar with. For instance, almost all adult patients have had or know someone who has a car. Along with that, they also have had maintenance and/or work done on the car. If we relate what we are seeing in the patient's oral condition to something they have experienced before, then it is more likely that our patients will “hear” us.

 A common situation that comes up when we do an examination is seeing uneven wear on a patient's teeth. The dental professional usually starts to talk to patients about what they see and how it appears they may have a “bite” problem. Here again, many patients are unaware of the situation that has been presented. 

Rather than discussing all the reasons they need to fix it, I will use an analogy or life situation that correlates to the current condition.  If we show the patient the wear on photos and allow them to discover the tooth wear in different areas of the mouth, this is the first step. If we ask the patient if they have ever had their tires wear out due to their car’s front-end alignment being off, almost universally the patient will respond that they have, allowing us to connect the “uneven” wear on their teeth to their tires. A lot of times patients will ask “what do we need to get things aligned?”  

Is this everything you need to know about communicating with your patients? Absolutely not! This article is simply here to help dental professionals to consider communicating differently with our patients, so they can “hear” us better and hopefully, move our patients to better overall oral health.

Jeff Lineberry, DDS, FAGD, FICOI, Accredited Member of the AACD and Visiting Faculty and Contributing Author for Spear Education.  www.cccdds.com