As a dental student, patients have little reason to trust you – you are not licensed, you are inexperienced, and you must have faculty dentists double-check your every move. These facts are detrimental to your credibility as a new healthcare provider, which often manifests as missed appointments – all of which adds up to missed graduation requirements.
Patients often consider age to be a measure of our competence. For newly graduated dentists, this unfair perception translates to lost production and patients not getting the care they need. Dental students and newly graduated dentists are faced with a formidable challenge when building trust with patients.
Because of this perception of compromised credibility, patients will often ask new dentists questions like: “Have you done this before?”, “My last dentist didn't say that?”, or “Why is this taking so long?”
Poor responses to these frequently asked questions will further erode your credibility in the eyes of your patient and make it difficult for your them to trust you.
By adopting a different approach to these frequently asked questions, new dentists can establish a more positive working relationship with patients, increase their overall production, and more readily complete treatment for patients while meeting graduation requirements.
“Have you done this before?”
“The advantage of working in a team-based collaborative environment is that our team performs these procedures every day.”
The benefit of practicing in a dental school is that you work in a “team-based collaborative environment,” which is exactly what I told my new patients in dental school and residency. The key is to focus on the fact that patients have an entire team dedicated to their care.
The truth is that you work with other dentists who are part of a team and those team leaders do perform these treatments every day. This answer builds trust and confidence in you as the provider.
“My last dentist didn't say that...”
“Your mouth changes over time. Based on what I see today, you need this treatment.”
There are two considerations at play here: What the patient believes about their care, and your relationship with another dentist's work. Never shame another dentist's treatment plan. This response works because it is both clinically accurate and doesn't throw another dentist under the bus.
After you reply with the phrase above, show the patient clinical photos of what you see (broken tooth, gingival bleeding, wear, recession, radiographs, etc. Seeing is believing – if they see it, they believe it.
“How many patients have you seen?”
“The school keeps a detailed record of all my patient interactions. During my training, I will see hundreds of patients.”
Patients ask this question because they're worried about your level of experience. Your answer will vary – but in the case above, let's assume you are going to assume this is the first time you are ever seeing a patient. This response works because it is true – your school does keep a detailed record of patients seen.
“Why is this taking so long?”
“I understand today's appointment is taking longer than expected. I sincerely thank you for your patience. We are doing everything we can to ensure your filling/crown/root canal is strong enough to stand the test of time. Rushing now could compromise your tooth and I want to ensure your tooth has the best opportunity for success.”
It is important to set expectations with patients. Before you schedule appointments and begin treatment, clearly explain the amount of time the patient can expect to be there. When in doubt, overestimate the amount of time they need to be there.
“How long will this crown last?”
“The lifespan of the crown depends on many factors, but the most important factor is how well you take care of it. This means brushing and flossing regularly and showing up to routine dental appointments. When cared for well, many of my crowns will last through at least 7,000 meals.”
This response works because it highlights the role of the patient in ensuring treatment success. Most crowns can last 7-10 years if placed correctly and if the patient has good hygiene. Assuming the patient eats 3 meals per day, then: 3 meals x 365 days x 7 - 10 years = ~7,000 – 10,000 meals.
In the case of fillings, most can conservatively last 5 years if placed correctly and if the patient has good hygiene. Assuming the patient eats 3 meals per day then: 3 meals x 365 days x 5 years = ~5,000 meals.
Importantly, it's wise to note that nothing in dentistry lasts forever. This way, patients understand that it will need replacement at some point in the future.
“It doesn't hurt, why do I need it?”
“High blood pressure does not hurt either but can lead to a devastating heart attack or stroke. Similarly, teeth do not hurt unless something is very severe. When it gets to that point, often it is expensive and time consuming to fix. We need to repair these teeth before the decay grows larger and begins to cause pain, infection, and swelling.”
This highlights the oral/systemic health connection and reinforces the value and urgency of care – both of which are key elements in case acceptance.
“Why does this cost so much? This is expensive.”
“I understand costs are a deciding factor in your ability to move forward with treatment and I agree it is expensive. The only way to reduce our costs is to use inferior supplies and materials and our team cannot compromise our standards like that. Today, your dental treatment will be the most affordable it can ever be because tooth decay only gets bigger and more expensive to fix as time progresses.”
To convey credibility, you need to know the general prices of all the treatments you are about to recommend. Imagine someone trying to sell you something without knowing how much it costs! When you know the price without referencing anything, it improves your credibility because it looks like you do it regularly.
Practice these responses so you can answer these questions routinely and with confidence. You can use these responses to build a positive working relationship with your patients so they will have faith in you; they will refer their family members to you, and you will enhance their outlook on younger dentists and students.
Jordan Brown, D.D.S. is a dentist, author, and speaker. Follow Dr. Brown on Instagram at @drjordanbrown.