2.12.10 Issue #414 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

David Clow
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Practice Cultures

Perhaps not many of your patients would recognize the term, but your practice has a “culture.” Every practice does. Whether patients know the word or not, we know what it means, and while your practice culture is sometimes ambiguous and subtle, your culture might be the single most important factor in your success.

The word has several definitions, but for our purpose, let’s call culture the values, conventions, or social practices of your office; in other words, it’s your normal way of doing business. It’s what patients see when we’re in your waiting room or your operatory; it’s how we feel when we’re in your presence; it’s how you and your staff interact with us and with each other; it’s your assumptions and givens as they become manifest in your normal routine. I said culture was subtle, but it’s subtle to some dentists because they don’t see it any longer. It’s like the art on the walls or the furniture. It doesn’t change from day to day. The dentists and the staff take it for granted until it’s invisible to them. It’s just there. But patients? We notice.

Two Practice Cultures
Here are a couple of examples of dental practice culture as a patient might experience it. Practice A is a high-throughput, pretty impersonal place where I have to reintroduce myself every time I go. The staff seems to change from visit to visit, but the magazines in the waiting room are the same every time. The art on the walls is too bland to remember. The actual care, well…it’s technically adequate, but businesslike and almost indifferent. It’s not unusual for me to be left sitting alone in the operatory for ten minutes waiting for the dentist, or even during a procedure, to be left that long while the anesthetic takes hold.

Practice B tells a whole different story. The staff of five has worked as a team for at least six years. They know their patients and even their patients’ families. The waiting room is simple but cheerful and the magazines aren’t circa 1998. The décor is extraordinary. These folks don’t just work together in this place; they get training as a group and share downtime as friends, and their smiling group photos and candid snapshots are the dentist’s choice for office art - not the bland abstracts, or posters selling some new treatment. Patients don’t get left alone in this office. If a few spare minutes happen in the appointment, someone’s there with you to ask about how you feel, or maybe just to make small talk.

A patient experiencing the first practice can tell that these people care about dentistry. One who visits the second practice can tell that these folks care about people.

Culture as a Competitive Edge
Patients might not understand the word “culture,” but we know what we like and value and we offer our loyalty to dentists based largely on that. Can we differentiate between one dentist’s technical skills and another’s? Not likely. Do we care where you went to school or what continuing education you’ve had this year? Not much. Does it matter to us if we feel safe, appreciated and cared for? You bet it does. That’s your culture. Whether it’s cool and indifferent or personal and nurturing, we understand it very well. And we’ll stay with or leave a practice based on that ambiguous, subtle, but very real perception.

It’s a challenge to take a new perspective on something you’re used to taking for granted, but it’s worth any dentist’s time to think about this. What’s your practice culture? How do you communicate it to your staff and patients? Are your best goals and values apparent to people? Most important, are you losing patients to the practice down the street because their culture is a competitive asset, while yours is just there?

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.

Listen to David’s FREE podcast. Click Here

Correction: In my last column here, Evolutions in Dentistry,” I wrote about the Minnesota program to certify dental technicians, and said that “Connecticut is running a pilot version [of such a program], and over ten other state dental associations are investigating dental therapist programs of their own.” This is incorrect. Richard Dvarskas, DMD, Chairman of the Connecticut State Dental Association Dental Relations Committee, notified me that “the Connecticut State Dental Association House of Delegates voted to study the concept of dental therapists only.” Thanks to Dr. Dvarskas - my mistake.

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