In my last article on the dentist-patient relationship, I delved into the biases that both we and patients bring to the table when they're looking for a new practitioner. In overcoming those biases, it's important to focus on more than just their prior treatment. Understanding why they're choosing a new provider and how they make that decision sets the foundation for your relationship. Effective communication around that makes it easier to build long-term trust that leads to patient retention.

It's important to focus on why patients look for a new practitioner
Figure 1: It's important to focus on why patients look for a new practitioner.

Four Questions to Jump-Start Dentist-Patient Relationships

What do you need to know about a patient to be better prepared to jumpstart the new-patient relationship? Let me suggest four questions that may help — why, how, who, and what.






Why are they looking for a new dentist?

How did they find us?

Who is the patient?

And last but certainly not least, what is the patient’s chief complaint?


Why Are They Looking for a New Dentist?

As we dive deeper into these four reasons, I would like for you to see how the first two are both inherently and circumstantially different from the others. The answers to these questions will influence how we speak to and present data to individual patients. Let’s start with, “Why are adult patients searching for a new dentist?” The most common reasons are:

  • Geographical relocation,

  • Retirement of the previous dentist,

  • A desire for a second opinion, or

  • A past relationship that has worn out.

External factors drive relocation or retirement, so the patient ends up in our dental chair by chance. Whereas internal factors, like exploring different professional criteria or when a previous practice relationship has run its course, cause the patient to come to us by choice. Therefore, every time we see new patients in our office, they are either:

  • Taking a chance

  • Making a choice

This means each new patient navigates differently. The patient who appears in your office because of relocation or retirement could certainly be resistant, skeptical, or passive when listening to treatment options, as opposed to a patient who shows up because they want a second opinion or are looking for a change. These patients will be interested and enthusiastic about embarking on therapy.

It should be noted that irrespective of why new patients are looking for a new dentist, our communication strategy should be aimed toward three fundamental objectives:

  • Reducing anxiety

  • Building engagement and trust, and

  • Increasing case acceptance.

As I've described in a series of previous articles for patients who are looking for a second opinion there are some things to consider. First, at what stage of their treatment journey do they present?

  • Before initiating treatment

  • During active therapy

  • After treatment is completed

Besides where in their journey they present, we must also discover why they are looking outside their primary dental office. There are three main reasons you’ll encounter.

  • Price. They are shopping around for a better deal.

  • Validation. They want to confirm that the offered treatment or the treatment done was the right choice.

  • Exploration. They are uncomfortable with the offered treatment, or the treatment done, and they are now looking for alternatives.
Why patients look for a new dentist influences how we speak to and present data to them
Figure 2: Why patients look for a new dentist influences how we speak to and present data to them.

I recommend avoiding the price game at all costs. If we play the price game, we focus on selling instead of treatment. This is an exhausting exercise and is not beneficial for either party.

Also, we often regret it when a patient convinces us to lower the price. I say “convinces us” because patients don’t often try to outright haggle with us. However, they may make us feel like we have to offer them a lower price to come in under the price offered by their previous dentist.

But we know what our time is worth. We know the value of the level of care we can provide. If price is the second-opinion patient’s primary concern, we must take two steps back and ensure the patient understands and values quality dental treatment. If their only concern is monetary, there’s a good chance we won’t be able to get across what it is we can do for them.

Years ago, I saw a patient who was shopping around. One day, the young guy who worked in our building saw our office, walked in, and asked for an appointment.

As soon as I entered, he said, “Hey doc, how much for a filling here? I need six.”

I was shocked. I could not believe the first thing this young man asked me was how much a filling cost. Seriously?!

My immediate comeback was, “Well, it depends on the cavity. We can give you a quote after we do an exam.”

Sure enough, after a clinical and radiographic exam, he had two carious lesions requiring Class I composite restorations. So, we then gave him a quote. Our quote for each composite was considerably higher than his previous quote, but our overall quote was lower than the previous one since he was planned for six restorations elsewhere.

He then had the audacity to ask me, “Can you please take a closer look? ’Cuz, I believe I have six.

Next, he used his cell phone to call someone and brief them on the situation. He thanked me and left to get six fillings done somewhere else. You see, this person did not doubt the previous dentist’s diagnosis. He just wanted to find a better price. Suffice it to say, it was nice to see him leave.

Conversely, the validation and the exploration patients have different mindsets. Their motivation and focus are on the actual dentistry. They are interested in our treatment criteria, which is a fantastic opportunity to show them what we can do.

How Did They Find You?

My next recommendation is to figure out how these patients found you.

  • Were they referred by one of your existing patients? A family member or a friend?

  • Did they find you online?

  • Did they find you serendipitously, like driving by and seeing your sign in the street?

It is important to distinguish how a patient finds you because it is often conducive to their initial behavior when starting a new relationship. It requires us to customize their dental experience. Let me explain.

In our practice, when we see patients who are referred to by a dentist, they typically have an advanced condition. They have been briefed and are knowledgeable regarding the nature of the treatment they need. Their willingness to hear about a comprehensive approach is typically high because someone else has done the heavy lifting for us.

**If you look at this female patient, (Fig 3) she knew she had an advanced condition, and she was told we were the right office to treat her and, in this case, (Fig 4) we did a full-mouth, implant-supported reconstruction. *

Patient's teeth before treatment
Figure 3: Patient's teeth before treatment.
Full-mouth, implant-supported reconstruction
Figure 4: Full-mouth, implant-supported reconstruction.

But for most patients, we need to do the heavy lifting ourselves when it comes to communication. What helps with our communication strategy is the answer to the third question, which is, “Who is the patient?”

Who is The Patient?

When it comes to who the patient is, we can classify their profile using archetypes or personas — a composite of a population segment that best describes them.

Things like age or what they do for a living are helpful. For instance, if we are treating an art teacher, our communication may be different than if we are treating an engineer. And if you have treated engineers before, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Figuring out which persona best describes them allows us to present therapy options in a way that is more suitable for them. Keeping our communication strategy objectives in mind, we must be conscious that communicating dentistry should be embraced as both challenging and complex.

Patients can be classified using personas
Figure 5: Patients can be classified using personas.

And the last but certainly not least question to find answers to is, "What is the patient's chief complaint?" In other words, what is their main problem?

What is the Patient's Chief Complaint?

A common term used in marketing is the buyer's journey, which is the process a customer goes through to purchase a product or service. The buyer's journey has three stages:

  • The awareness stage,

  • The consideration stage, and

  • The decision stage.

The buyer's journey is bulletproof when communicating with patients, but we must carefully follow the order of the stages. The key to overcoming potential hurdles is to listen. Patients don't care how much we know until they see how much we care. Listen for hints of other issues and ask follow-up questions.

Once you know what the patient's issues are, you must have content prepared to make them aware. In our office, we utilize a combination of content. First, we use Spear’s Patient Education videos, which show patients their condition and the consequences of inaction. Then we follow up with a digital slide presentation of similar cases we've treated. The idea is to deliver the information as simply as possible without condescending.

After presenting content, ask questions and listen to ensure the patient understands their condition. And only then should you move to the consideration stage, which encompasses what therapy entails, like time and costs. And finally, they can arrive at the decision stage.

By examining the why, how, who, and what brings patients into our practices, we set a strong foundation for the dentist-patient relationship. We get to know them on a deeper level and can adjust our communication style to match their needs. I hope this information allows you to have a smoother ride while embarking on the fascinating journey of establishing relationships with new patients.

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