We Are All Alike

Maggie Augustyn, DDS


practice growth

A Magic Bullet in Creating Practice Growth
Through Profound Patient Relationships

There has been a long involved and well-supported discussion among the top experts in practice growth around forming relationships with patients. Having been connected with and following some of the most successful fee for service providers in dentistry, I have seen them all rely on the same protocol: connect before you correct. It’s the common thread that has driven their practices forward.

Yes, many other things matter also: clinical skill and confidence, team culture, continuing education, etc.

However, the main reason why patients come to see a dentist is to see the dentist. And as you’ll see in the ensuring discussion, when patients like you, when they find a commonality with you, they not only continue to return, but are more likely to follow through on your advice and treatment planning recommendations. 

The practice of finding commonalities with our patients is nowhere in our dental school curriculum. In fact, having graduated in 2004, there wasn’t even a word spoken about patient engagement. For me, it remained a mystery until I stumbled upon it outside the dental school walls, 15 years later, in the real word of dentistry… The human part of dentistry. 

Human relationships and patient relationships may or may not have come to us with ease, or for that matter, with much thought or serious consideration. The last quarter century has made communication with one another effortless, though limited, to a 2 dimensional interaction via email, social media, cell phones, and so on.

This ease of correspondence has caused life to go on fast forward in the new-ish millennium and has also significantly diminished our opportunity to interact with other people in person. And with the pandemic having taken up more than 18 months of our lives, human to human contact has been the exception, rather than the rule.

So, unless you’ve been blessed to grow up taught to value 3 dimensional, human to human engagement, or have been mentored in that direction, it may be a novel idea that human relationships in life are of utmost importance. For some of us, that very idea can interject itself into our lives rather spontaneously, and be grateful when it does.

Let this be that spontaneous moment in your life, where I am given an opportunity to fortify my learned behavior of maintaining human/patient relationships and introduce a ground breaking study. 

In 2004, Burger et al published a study called “What a Coincidence! The Effects of Incidental Similarity on Compliance” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The most fascinating part of the study has to do with exploring the relationship between, and subsequently, the likelihood of follow through on request among people who share similarities.

This study, like many others before it, attempted to further evaluate how likely we are to comply with requests made by people who are similar to us. Studies going back as far several decades have positively linked the likelihood of follow through on favors for people who are physically attractive, who have done us a favor in the past, and who engage us using our first names.

Data from this particular study had shown that we are more likely to complete a stranger’s moderately taxing request if we share similarities with them, and are almost twice as likely as the control to follow through with the request if we have uncommon similarities. 

According to the 88 participant study, two strangers finding they had an uncommon similarity of a rare type fingerprint (only 2% of the population has this fingerprint) were almost twice as likely to spend their free time helping each other out.

Common similarities, though still elevated the participant’s agreement to the request, were only at about 15% higher than the control.

The last thing I want to suggest is that looking for uncommon links with our patients is some sort of an unfair pursuit toward driving revenue. We, as dentists, with much education and experience under our belt, are educators and caretakers. We know way more in all of our years of eduction than a lay person is able to google. And just by that alone, we may think that our advice is worth its weight in gold.

Opening our patients’ minds into listening to our message is something we believe they can benefit from. Eliminating the likelihood that what we suggest lands on deaf ears is much more in their favor than it is ours. And though it is our intent to carelessly flaunt the 10+ years it took for us to develop the knowledge, our interest lies in giving our patients the information necessary to make a well informed decision.

But what if our audience, our patients, aren’t ready to listen? What if the engagement and trust is missing?

What then?

I share my failed connection to patients with anyone and everyone who would listen, which now includes you. For more than a decade, not knowing any different, not being taught any different, I’d zoom into a room with a new patient, review radiographs, perform an exam, and within 5 minutes, I would have a treatment plan ready to be executed at the next appointment.

The follow through on behalf of the patient was minimal. It never occurred to me that it was me who needed to change, I instead imagined that the patients didn’t have the time or money to proceed with proposed treatment. I was wrong.

Now, having implemented and prioritized patient relationships, finding commonalities with my patients, treatment plans which may have doubled and tripled in copays have appointments set up prior to dismissal. My patients are finally ready to listen. And they listen to what I have to say, because they know me. Because they know me; they tend to trust me.

My appointments are now spread to be longer, because part of them revolves around catching up and curiously looking for uncommon links that connect me to my patients. With patients needing a significant amount of dental treatment, I share that I, myself, have had 9 root canals (I’m not lying, I’ve had 9 root canals); I have shared with patients my uncommon and slightly bizarre love for a sound the train makes; I’ve shared with them my secret desire to go back to school and become an attorney, a philosopher, and a researcher in psychology/sociology and my plan to live abroad for a year. 

There are incredible advantages to me personally in creating and maintaining the links of (un)commonality and in furthering patient relationships. Learning about the lives of my patients has made me work harder and tire less all in the pursuit of creating healthy smiles for the people I care about. And in that, the patient wins.

I thoroughly enjoy even the hardest days, because I work with people who have been like friends. In getting closer to my patients, I’ve recommitted to my purpose as a health care provider. And in my life specifically, getting pleasure from many of my daily interactions goes a long way toward reducing my risk of burnout. 

The meaningful conversations that take place chairside, create memories which are easier recalled at the next visit. You begin to remember the faces of patients, not just their radiographs, and patients can tell.

People can tell when you are genuinely interested in their lives. As dentists, we have a difficult job; we meet patients who, prior to entering our office, think and sometimes even say out loud: I hate this place.

A positive, enjoyable and engaging interaction with a dentist, from what I am hearing, is not just pleasantly unexpected but is apparently quite uncommon. So, there, that’s our first uncommon link with out patient: a delightful interaction at the dental office.

It is one worth remembering and building upon for both parties involved. 

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Soyfeliz2018 form PxHere.