New dental patient relationships are rarely "new." Most patients come to us with a history that affects their approach to dental treatment and their expectations from their practitioner. One of the most important steps in dental patient relationship building is understanding those biases and working around them. In this two-part series, I will delve into the biases we face when establishing new patient relationships, as well as how effective communication can overcome them.

Understanding biases and working around them is important in establishing patient relationships
Understanding biases and working around them is important in establishing patient relationships.

Dual Dynamics in the Dental Patient Relationship

Most healthcare organizations naturally involve building new relationships with patients. It's common to establish these connections with adult patients who were formerly treated by previous dentists and decided to explore a different dental practice.

Let’s linger on this scenario for a second; it is both humbling and disappointing. Today, we know patients have many dental practices to choose from, yet they decided to come to us. That is humbling. Conversely, a practice’s pre-existing patients could similarly look for other options. That is disappointing. However, being cognizant of this prevents us from taking our patients’ loyalty for granted and motivates us to continuously keep on raising our bar.

Starting professional relationships with new patients opens endless possibilities for us. It allows the practice to come together as a team and show what we can do. It also provides an excellent opportunity for us to learn and be creative. So, try not to dread building a new patient relationship, instead embrace it as if it were an energizing opportunity, because it is.

Don't disregard a patient's prior experiences; their biases and assumptions are rooted in past dental encounters. Therefore, these experiences present an intriguing opportunity to leverage and enhance communication and treatment strategies.

Case Study: Navigating Patient Resistance in Practice Acquisition

Let me tell you about a Spear doctor who recently reached out to me, asking for help because his relationship with patients from a recently acquired practice was struggling. Let me point out that this doctor is a seasoned clinician with over 20 years of practice experience, and he genuinely cares about providing the best available treatment to his patients.

He bought an additional practice, which conceptually represented an attractive financial upside. But little did he know how problematic it would turn out to be. He consistently encountered resistance from most patients of that new practice when he presented them with his clinical findings and treatment options.

He would often have conversations with these patients about their clinical condition and how they could benefit from comprehensive care. Unfortunately, and despite his best intentions, these patients often felt they were being “sold to.”

Have you ever experienced something similar? Do you ever feel that some of your patients think you are selling them unnecessary dentistry? If so, how do you mitigate this awkward and uncomfortable feeling? And lastly, why do you think they feel that way?

The critical question in our colleagues' case is why were the new practice's patients reluctant to hear about their potential treatment?

Enhancing New Patient Experiences During Practice Transition

Let's unpack a few things from the interaction described in the last section. From our friend’s point of view, those patients were new patients at a new practice. They were coming from an older one.

For years, their previous dentist offered them next to no dentistry. He only provided therapy to those who presented with advanced conditions — normally associated with pain or discomfort, such as a cracked tooth or a periodontal abscess. Only patients who presented with rather acute symptoms actually received treatment.

The problem was the former dentist never discussed patients' additional underlying conditions, such as ill-fitting restorations, dental wear, erosion, gingival recession, short clinical crowns, etc. let alone presented them with treatment options to address these conditions.

The former dentist's biases and assumptions limited the treatment possibilities for those patients. Consequently, our Spear colleague's approach was ineffective. He expressed that when encountering a patient from that new practice, he felt akin to Sisyphus, the legendary king eternally condemned to roll a heavy rock up a hill repeatedly.

When he had conversations with them regarding their conditions, and the benefits of comprehensive treatment, these patients often felt they were being sold to. To them, he seemed more like a merchant than a dentist. Some patients were bold enough to tell him so. Paradoxically, the previous dentist of the practice claimed he had used the same protocol for years, which worked perfectly for him.

Why did it work for him but not our Spear colleague? Because those patients were accustomed to a different set of biases and assumptions.

Truthfully, our Spear doctor held certain biases and assumptions when acquiring the practice. He believed that integrating the new patients would be a straightforward, plug-and-play process. However, the reality was starkly different and far more challenging than initially thought.

Many patients expressed feeling like they had lost a beloved family friend. After years of exposure to a known system, they felt disoriented, confused, and overwhelmed with the new dentist's treatment recommendations. Also, this practice transition happened after the COVID pandemic, which amplified these patient sentiments.

When I asked him to walk me through his standard process, he mentioned he would do a routine clinical and radiographic exam, followed by a thorough conversation with the patient describing his treatment plan.

After years of the proverbial "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, gaining immediate buy-in from patients would prove challenging.

While there was nothing inherently wrong with our friend’s approach, learning a little more about the patient’s previous dental journey could have helped him significantly. Let me suggest that the more we know about our new patients, the easier it is to jumpstart the process of building a long-lasting connection with them.

However, building a relationship requires a communication strategy that goes beyond gathering clinical or radiographic data. It requires an understanding of communication subtleties and nuances. Presenting treatment options successfully to a patient demands a level of sensitivity, attention, and creativity. On many levels, it should be considered as an art form.

The more that is known about our new patients, the easier it is to start building long-lasting connections with them
The more that is known about our new patients, the easier it is to start building long-lasting connections with them.

In my next article on dental patient relationship building, I will break down this critical process. By examining the right questions to ask and the right way to ask them, we can overcome prior treatment biases and establish a successful relationship with new patients.

Ricardo Mitrani, D.D.S., M.S.D., is a Spear Resident Faculty member.