Dental Teams Must Play a Role in Communicating Treatment Possibilities

Debra Engelhardt-Nash

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There are influential moments when opportunities occur to discuss and validate your treatment options with patients. Finding occasions to introduce and sustain the perception of quality care is the responsibility of every team member.

From vital social media exposure to the initial moment of telephone contact and post-treatment continuing care visits, the team is building a quality culture during all patient encounters. Every team member is responsible for those critical moments when the patient’s choice to choose your practice and your care is validated.

Why is this important? Experts contend that more than 80% of the reason patients choose to work with your practice is based on the relationship that is developed between them and you. The relationship begins the moment the patient comes in contact with your practice, through your social media presence to the initial telephone encounter and entrance into your office and connection with your team. Further studies suggest that patients decide to choose your care within 10 minutes of entering your office. They haven’t even met the doctor yet, nor has a treatment plan been presented. 

In other words, patients are not judging the quality of care provided by the doctor but the perception of the quality of care being demonstrated by the way every member of the team treats them and the way the team describes the quality of care being provided by the dentist. 

Most patients joining the practice don’t know whether the dentistry being provided is exceptional or that the doctor is committed to excellent care unless someone tells them. This information is shared by the team, from the initial phone call to the new patient consultation through their recare visits. Endorsement of the doctor and his or her treatment by team members is not an option but a requirement.

Social media experts will state that Google reviews are critical to your social media presence. Patient reviews confirm that other clients have a high regard for the practice. Many patient comments refer to the way they were treated during their dental visit, not extolling the quality of the impression or the exceptional margin of the crown. All patient interaction is significant to their satisfaction and their opinion that they received an outstanding dental experience that was worthy of the fees charged.

From Awareness to the Phone Call 

With few exceptions, the moment that patients call your office, they have chosen your care. Something inspired that person to call your office today, and that reason needs to be discovered. The responsibility of the receptionist is to find out the reason and validate that the patient made the right decision to contact your practice. The receptionist only has a few moments to make the right first impression.

Each team member plays a critical role in introducing the practice’s attributes and advantages. The hygienist has ample opportunities to discuss outstanding treatment plans and introduce new treatment possibilities during the patient visit. Being chairside with patients is an exceptional opportunity to communicate quality and endorse treatment. Together, they all validate the doctor’s treatment suggestions and extol the quality of care being delivered in their office.

There are myriad duties in the daily regimen of the dental team: orchestrating the delivery of treatment, arranging armamentarium, records management, and maneuvering the schedule to optimize chair time. In addition, the team members are responsible for communicating quality and perpetuating the practice culture. Demonstrating knowledge, empathy, enthusiasm, sincerity, and presence accomplish this. 

Knowledge

Additional training to learn new techniques and technology will boost team confidence in talking to patients. A well-informed auxiliary can help patients better understand treatment recommendations. The more knowledgeable in materials, treatment processes, and technology your team members are, the more information they can share with the patient. Confirming the doctor’s diagnosis and helping define the treatment plan aids in patient understanding and promotes treatment acceptance. 

A commitment to ongoing training keeps the team abreast in the latest clinical techniques and practice management. Providing in-office training programs and sharing journals and manufacturers’ materials for review helps the team stay current in dentistry. 

Also, team meetings focused on patient communication familiarizes auxiliaries with patients’ questions and appropriate responses.

With the use of visual aids, the chairside assistant can explain treatment. Photographs, intraoral cameras, and media learning improve patient communication. The chairside assistant should be adept with learning technology to use these tools to augment patient learning. 

Teaching the assistant to share patient information improves chairside efficiency and doctor/auxiliary utilization. This team member can assume a lot of the responsibility of patient communication while the doctor is attending to other treatment needs. Knowing the details of patient care helps the assistant become a “treatment ambassador” for patients and advocate for their care.

Empathy

Patients are looking for validation of treatment choices. They want the assurance that they have chosen the right office and the right doctor for their dental care. When the team introduces the practice philosophy and praises the doctor’s care, they are fulfilling the need for treatment validation. In essence, the team members become the second opinion that patients often seek.

Enthusiasm

The team’s excitement about treatment possibilities transmits to patients. Chairside assistants must convey their zeal for the practice. Praising the doctor and exhibiting enthusiasm for what the treatment plan can offer the patient in dental health and appearance translates to the patient.

When the staff is genuinely excited about the office and apparently proud of the doctor’s care, it captures the patient’s interest. Patients like to be surrounded by a team of professionals who exude confidence and show interest in their care. The enthusiasm of the team captivates the patient. 

Imagine going to an amusement park and meeting apathetic employees who aren’t excited about the thrills and adventures the park offers. Would that change your experience? If you asked an attendant if the ride is fun or worth the wait, and in response you heard “I don’t know,” or “I have been on this so many times, it isn’t fun for me anymore,” would that alter your opinion? Or, if the employee said, “This is just my job, I don’t enjoy the ambiance anymore,” would you have a different perspective? I think you would. 

Case in Point 

During an in-office consultation in a practice, the doctor I was visiting was presenting his treatment plan and explaining its advantages. His chairside assistant was in the operatory with him, attending the consultation. During his discussion, he thought it would be helpful to use a current laboratory case as illustration.

The doctor left the room to get the restorations from the lab. I thought it was interesting that he got up to get the case, and not the dental assistant. But then I thought that it would be a great opportunity for the dental assistant to affirm the doctor’s treatment plan.

She could have taken these moments to comment on the doctor’s excellent care and the artistic talents and precision of the lab, while assuring the patient that the results of her dentistry would be worthy of her investment in time and resources.

After the doctor left the room, the patient turned to the dental assistant and asked, “What do you think about all of this?” Again, this would have been an opportune moment to validate the treatment plan and convey support of the doctor’s recommendations.

The assistant could have assured the patient of the doctor’s skill and care. She could have discussed the technical expertise of the laboratory and explained the importance of having synergy between the doctor and lab to achieve exceptional results. The assistant could have complimented the doctor and the lab and shared her pride in the process of treatment provided in the office.

Instead, the dental assistant turned to the patient and remarked, “Well, I have heard all of this before.” The atmosphere in the operatory made an obvious shift. When the doctor reentered the room with the lab case, the patient graciously attended to his explanation and then responded by saying, “Let me think about it.” 

Upon reviewing this consultation, the team assumed they had “wasted their time” designing a comprehensive treatment plan for a patient who was limiting her treatment options to procedures covered by insurance. The team determined that they had failed to identify the patient’s status correctly.

There may have been something in that assumption, but I think something else happened. The lack of enthusiasm by the chairside assistant changed the direction of the patient’s motivation. In other words, the case was unsold. 

Enthusiasm is infectious. Creativity and enthusiasm will outsell experience. Patients will respond more favorably to a positive, affirming team. 

Sincerity  

Patient communication must be genuine. To be believed, the message must be heartfelt. Team members must communicate with authority and sincerity. Scripting may be a helpful tool in designing communication. But if the team member does not believe the message, the patient may feel the remarks rehearsed and contrived.

Spend time in helping the team understand and appreciate treatment philosophy, practice systems, and desired treatment outcomes. Create opportunities to ask for clarity and tools to help in patient communication in staff meetings and team dialogue. Describe and discuss your core beliefs to provide a clear understanding of your practice philosophy and design to achieve sincere endorsement. 

The patient will witness care from all team members when everyone genuinely agrees on the core values of the practice. The message may be articulated differently, blending individuality with the philosophical foundation of the practice. But the core belief is the underlying theme in all communication processes. 

Presence                                                                          

To communicate effectively, team members must be fully present. This is more than physical attendance. The team member must be in the moment, paying attention to the words and watching for signs that the communication connection is successful. 

Patients may be reluctant to tell the doctor that they don’t understand or haven’t fully grasped the treatment dialogue. This is when the chairside assistant or treatment coordinator becomes an interpreter. When the doctor is not in the room, the chairside assistant reviews information, confirms treatment recommendations, and asks the patient, “What questions can I answer for you?” This allows the patient to ask for more information and gain more assurance in the treatment plan and procedure.

Patients may be more inclined to voice their objections including financial concerns to a team member. An articulate team member should ask the patient to explain what is preventing the patient from having the procedure done.

The dental hygienist and assistant can take the time to listen to patient concerns, expectations, and questions. They become the liaison between doctor and patient. Time must be allocated to listen without interruption. 

Appropriate body language telegraphs empathy and interest to the patient. The auxiliary should sit at eye level with patients, at their side, and slightly forward. Eye contact must be maintained with the patient. Looking at patients instead of the computer screen says that what they are saying is important and that you are paying attention. 

How we communicate is 55% percent body language, 38% percent tone of voice, and 7% words. Paying attention to where you sit and how you stand as well as to the tone in your voice will make an impact.

The schedule must be structured to allow time to attend to patients in the operatory rather than leave them stranded while attending to non-patient duties. Sterilization time, chart completion, and preparing for patient care must be factored into patient treatment care to avoid leaving the patient alone to attend to these tasks. Patients want to feel well cared for, and they are more interested in how they are being treated, rather than if the next operatory is being stocked. 

Sitting with patients while the doctor is out of the room or during a planned waiting period during the procedure also aids in the communication process. Using this time as an opportunity to discuss their care, their potential treatment results, and the additional services the practice can offer builds rapport and patient loyalty.

Data entry and record keeping are integrated in such a way that they do not take precedence over patient focus. Full attention is paid to what the patient is conveying, not what the response will be. Other distractions to patient focus are eliminated or minimized. 

There are many tasks that need to be accomplished by the dental team, in addition to patient communication. What drives all of the practice tasks is patient care, which is improved when communication processes are the priority and fine-tuned.

Opportunities abound to improve and enhance communication. The result is that patient comfort is improved and treatment acceptance is increased. Patient satisfaction is achieved, and practice potential expands.

Ms. Engelhardt-Nash has been in dentistry and healthcare related fields more than 30 years. She is a founding member and has served two terms as president of the National Academy of Dental Management Consultants. She is currently serving her third term as President of the ADMc. She is a member of the American Academy of Dental Practice Administration and a Fellow in the International Academy of Dental Facial Esthetics. She also serves on the Practice Management Advisory Board for the ADA. She has been listed in Dentistry Today as a Leader in Continuing Dental Education and Dental Consulting since 2001 and the 2015 recipient of the Gordon Christensen Outstanding Lecturer Award. She can be reached at debraengelhardtnash@gmail.com or (704) 766-0025.

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