More often than not we find that certain dental centers are busier than its immediate neighbor. As a dentist, our practice/clinic could have the state of art infrastructure and could be housing the best of dental equipment and yet the number of footfalls is not impressive. Sometimes, we may also see a less number of patients that return for periodic consultations. If this sounds familiar, then this could be because we are missing out on the most important tool in dentistry and that is communication with the patient.
The biggest compliment for a dentist is when his colleagues prefer to be treated by him. I give this example of a very experienced dental surgeon I know and I would definitely go to this dentist to get my dental treatment done. The perfection of his handwork and his profound knowledge of the subject is admirable to say the least. Yet his practice was not seeing the number of patients you would expect for a dentist so well skilled. Until one day a family member of mine, who I had referred to him came back without getting treated, saying she was not satisfied. ‘‘The doctor spoke very little and I did not feel convinced enough to continue there.’’ She said. Being a dentist myself, I see this as her loss, not to be treated by such good hands. But the fact still remains that this dentist lost a patient only because of the lack of good communication.
Many good doctors are poor communicators as they are confident of their ability in providing the best treatment, that they give little importance to involve their patient in treatment planning. The new age patient is a far cry from their two decade previous counterparts who used to be happy to blindly follow anything their doctor says. Today a patient wants to be actively involved in the decision making of their treatment plan. Many of them even have suggestions to make (Thanks to Google). It is only prudent that a dentist gives equal importance to communication as he gives to quality treatment, if not more.
The first step to effective communication is listening. Listening and hearing is not the same at all. To save time the dentist just hears what the complaint of the patient is, without paying attention to the whole subject, knowing very well that he can arrive at a treatment plan when he looks into the patient’s mouth. Adding to this is a queue of patients waiting their turn to speak to the dentist. Active listening is making sense of what the speaker is trying to convey by paying attention to their tone of voice, body language and facial expression. It is then essential to rephrase their words and say it back to them so you can confirm that you have heard and understood them. When they quickly say yes and go on to expand a bit more you can be sure that you are on the right track. And after a few successful repeats of this exercise you find the patient go silent because they know that you have understood them. This helps in building a strong rapport with the patient and helps the patient trust the doctor on his/her ability to treat them.
Discuss the treatment plan in detail with the patient. Explaining the things they haven’t understood will prevent misunderstandings in future appointments. Put reason before every decision, then your approach will seem more like care and less like treatment. Once the treatment and costs are agreed upon by both parties it can then be recorded and signed. At this stage you have successfully gained the trust of a patient and it’s highly unlikely that you lose a patient from this point on.
The interaction does not end here. To have a clear idea if you have mastered proper communication techniques, it is essential to incorporate a feedback mechanism. It is not always easy to hear if someone wants to criticize you. Hence you could even have a written feedback system. An effective feedback mechanism facilitates communication process, re-establishes your confidence, refrains you from avoiding constructive criticism and helps you improve a patients experience at your practice.
Finally, make sure you keep yourself updated by attending communication, team building and complaint handling CPD courses. As critical to practice as they are, these are topics which are not addressed in many dental schools. There is no need to feel embarrassed in seeking help on this front. The more convinced the patient, the better prognosis of the treatment and higher the chances of the patient returning to you for all their future dental needs.