10.26.07 - Issue # 294 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague

You Said What?
The Inside Scoop on Patient Communication
by Sally McKenzie CEO
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Wars are won or lost based on its effectiveness. Business arrangements fail or succeed and marriages flourish or wither because of it. Patients will love you or simply tolerate you depending how well you handle this. It’s the one characteristic that can almost instantly distinguish the excellent from the average. Communication. This is the bricks and mortar of every relationship you build with your colleagues, your team, your family, and, of course, your patients.

Today’s dentists have made huge strides in how they communicate with patients. The dental patient is recognized as a partner in the diagnostic process.  And volumes have been written about the importance of handling seemingly every communication situation from phone calls, to written correspondence, to email, to treatment presentations, to collections discussions, to patient financing conversations, to answering tough patient questions. But just when you think you’ve got the perfect script for every scenario, communications snafus come up in the most innocent and unlikely places and among the most well-meaning dental teams. 

Take the “insiders only” dental practices. They socialize together, share joys and sorrows about their children, their spouses, their pets, their hobbies, anything and everything in excruciating detail. The team members, including the doctor, can just sit and chat like old friends out for lunch. But their inside jokes, their “Oh, you had to be there,” conversations and other exchanges leave everyone but “those in the know” out of the loop.

And there’s Mrs. Patient, sprawled out on the chair, just watching these old chums chat away.  All the while, she is thinking, “Are they paying attention to what they’re doing? Is the anesthetic going to wear off before these two get to the last chapter of this epic discussion? I really wish someone would ask me if I need to spit.”  Now don’t get me wrong, good relationships among the team are crucial, but some of you enjoy each others’ company to the point that the patient can feel like an uninvited guest at your private party.

Then there are the teams with the entirely too talkative employees. Without even realizing it, they routinely discuss other patients’ personal situations. They’ll gossip about the doctor, fellow staff, and anyone else. They have the inside scoop on everything and in hushed whispers, they’ll be sure to tell you exactly what’s going on. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the tension-filled offices in which the stress is palpable. Disagreements and conflict among the team is as much a part of the daily routine as cancellations and no-shows. The doctors and staff will argue about specific treatment, how situations are to be handled or not, complain about so and so, and punctuate their exchanges with rolling eyes and frustrated sighs. Patients can sense problems from the moment they walk in the door. They are tuned in to everything that is said or not said, reading body language, and feeling the increasing stress of their own tension and anxiety.

Remember, most dental offices tend to be small spaces and casual conversations or tension filled exchanges can easily be heard in nearby operatories or even the reception area. Even if the patient is wearing earphones and listening to music or the television they may have quietly turned them off.

Always assume the patient can hear every word that is exchanged. Monitor your conversations and discussions and follow some basic rules for professional communication.

  1. Never have a disagreement in front of a patient. It makes the patient nervous and undermines confidence in the doctor and the staff.
  2. If one doctor or a member of the staff needs to discuss treatment with another doctor or another staff member, have the discussion in another room so the patient can’t hear you.
  3. Try not to disrupt the doctor while he is with a patient. The patient should feel like he/she is the most important person in the doctor’s life at that time.
  4. Doctors and staff should always be aware that the patient can see and/or hear you at all times as long as you are in the operatory or nearby hallway.
  5. Always show respect for your team members and other patients whether they are present or not.
  6. Save your personal stories for personal time. When the patient is in the chair, they are the center of attention, not you.
  7. Keep your opinions and “inside information” to yourself.

Next week, stop talking and start listening.

Interested in speaking to Sally about your practice concerns? Email her at sallymck@mckenziemgmt.com.
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