07.31.09 Issue #386 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

David Clow
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A Patient Departs

I just got a phone call from my dentist’s office, telling me that it’s time to come in for a routine cleaning. It was the second reminder. They haven’t figured it out yet that I’m looking for another dentist.

I’d rather not be making this change. If this dentist was nothing else, he was familiar. At least I knew how to get to the office, and where to park. But it’s not as though I’m leaving a close friend or a trusted healthcare advisor. My dentist barely spoke to me when I was there. His staff didn’t know my name. I went in, I sat down, I opened my mouth; he came in, he sat down, he went to work. He never asked me anything at all about my dental regimen, diet or eating habits. I never felt like more than just the procedure at hand. The relationship, if you can call it that, was between his instruments and my MasterCard.

I’ve moved around the country over the years, and I’ve been to other dental practices like this. Their way of doing business might be more the standard than the exception in the dental profession. Most of the practices I’ve visited don’t see impersonal care as a problem, or if they do they try to compensate for it with luxurious waiting rooms and spectacular equipment beside every chair. I’d suggest that these practices are missing the point that your most effective instrument is you.

The best dentist I ever had was a student at a major dental school. The chair I sat in was one of a hundred in a colossal, high-ceilinged operatory full of whining drills, earnest students, white-coated instructors and people like me who could sit for three-hour appointments. The place was as impersonal as a factory floor. The equipment was out of date. But my dentist lit up that big gloomy room and warmed the scariness right out of it. She was excited, fastidious, and so in love with what she was doing that she couldn’t wait to tell me about it. She didn’t speak in terms of technique or materials. She loved dentistry for what it meant to me and all her patients. She wouldn’t let me just sit there. She wanted me to understand my mouth. She engaged me as a person, as the owner of these teeth, and even when I was there for some repair she didn’t just fix me. She wanted to make me better.

My former dentist is 30 miles away, and that’s too far to drive to be treated like a number. If my friend the dental student were within 300 miles, I’d be in her office regularly.

It might sound unrealistic or unprofessional for a dentist to think in these terms. Passion and enthusiasm are great, but cash flow and time management are what keep a practice going day to day. I’m not asking you to weigh one against the other. I’m asking you to see them all as indispensable both to the pleasure you take from your work and to the bottom line of doing it every day.

It’s never difficult for you to spot indifference in the businesses you patronize. If all they care about is getting through the day and tallying up the receipts, you aren’t likely to stay with them, no matter how they compensate. Bring that same attitude into your dental office and no matter how you disguise it - even from yourself - your patients see it. The new equipment and the comfortable waiting room can’t conceal it.

There is no gap between joy and practicality in life or in business, any more than there is one between oral health and systemic health in the body. Your cash flow and throughput might rest, far more than you realize, on the little impressions you and your staff make. If you exclude your enthusiasm from your practice, you might also exclude mine.

There’s another side to this story, I know. In my next column, I’ll talk about my obligations to you as your patient.

On behalf of McKenzie Management, David Clow consults with dental professionals on practice culture, case acceptance, and patient expectations.

David Clow is a writer/consultant for Fortune 100 companies. His book, A Few Words from the Chair, is the first book written by a patient for dental professionals and students and is available here.

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