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Features / June 17, 2024

Connection: the missing link in dentistry 

by Lisa Grogan

Connection: the missing link in dentistry 

Lisa Grogan explains how connection can improve the patient experience and elevate your dental practice.

In the busy nature of a dental clinic, it is easy to lose sight of one vital element – connection! As a dental coach and psychologist dedicated to helping dental professionals thrive, I want to emphasise the importance of fostering genuine connections with your patients throughout their entire journey.

Statistics reveal a compelling narrative as to why ‘connection’ is so important. In a survey conducted by Dental Economics, 72% of patients stated that they are more likely to choose a dental practice that provides a positive experience throughout their journey. 

In addition, research by the American Dental Association indicates that 74% of patients are likely to switch to a different dental practice if they do not feel a strong connection with their current provider. 

Another consequence of a patient not having a positive experience is that the patient may be reluctant to attend for regular visits, resulting in not receiving the recommended preventive care and then present later with more complex needs at a larger cost (in both financial and time) to the patient.

There are five main touchpoints throughout the patient-clinic interaction to ensure the affiliation of ‘connection’ is interwoven throughout the journey.

Step one: initial connection

Creating that ‘connection’ starts before the patient even calls the clinic. We don’t often refer to patients as consumers, but that is essentially what they are. They have all the needs and attributes, both psychologically and physically, that consumers engage with when looking for a product or service. 

Most of these individuals will evaluate a service prior to engaging directly to ensure their time and money spent will be of value to them. 

This highlights the importance of what is portrayed online whether delivered through text or visual communication, both will greatly impact that initial connection. 

To create that connection online, your content needs to be engaging, educational, inspiring and entertaining. Addressing patients’ direct issues and concerns are great ways of making it personal and not a one-size-fits-all communication effort. 

It’s important to note that different forms of marketing will appeal to each generation based on their characteristics and preferences. 

The four main generations who attend a dental clinic are: 

  • Baby boomers (1946-1964)
  • Generation X (1965-1980)
  • Millennials (1981-1996)
  • Generation Z (1997-present).

Baby boomers and Generation X tend to do some research online, but ultimately the real decision whether they will commit to treatment comes from meeting the dental professional and discussing their treatment options in person. 

However, millennials and Gen Z will carry out the majority of their research online and if they feel the clinic aligns with their values, they will likely visit the clinic to see if it is the ‘right fit’ before finalising the decision to have treatment. 

Ultimately, both cohorts ensure there is a level of confidence but, whereas, one attains that connection from what they see online, the other requires face to face connection.

Step two: build rapport

Open questions are a great way to build rapport and uncover some of the patients’ needs as well as giving each patient the necessary attention. This will ensure the patient feels seen and heard. 

Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a highly effective discipline in how we think, communicate and behave. If a patient feels (kinaesthetic communicators) seen (visual communicators) and heard (auditory communicators), you will hit all the sensory points to create a solid connection. This will elevate your customer service to the next level. It will also create a subconscious feeling of psychological safety for the patient, which will help reduce feelings of anxiety around their appointment. 

In addition, the front of house team needs to be confident in discussing pricing, payment plans and procedures to instil confidence in that patient. If this is not done correctly, the patient will lose trust and you risk losing them.

Step three: growth mindset

Once the patient attends for a consultation, identify ways to consistently build rapport and connection. If they do not convert into treatment at this point, questions have to be asked as to why. It’s a mistake to always assume it’s down to cost, remember they have likely already done their homework on prices. 

Clinics need to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and seek out feedback from patients to improve the patient experience. Uncover patient needs through quality questioning and deeper levels of listening. The patient needs to feel they have autonomy during their course of treatment.  

Dr Bertalan Mesko calls for more of a cultural relationship between doctors and patients where there is an equal partnership, and the patient feels in control of their treatment and part of the journey.

Be mindful of communicating with patients in a language they understand so they can feel part of the process; visual tools are a key element in communicating treatment options. 

Show empathy and understanding throughout your conversations, especially if the patient displays any anxious behaviours. 

We can improve our communication through non-verbal and verbal skills. Albert Mehrabian, a body language researcher, broke how we interact into three components:

  • 55% non-verbal
  • 38% vocal 
  • 7% words. 

We can create psychological safety during interaction with a patient by maintaining eye contact, keeping an open posture, nodding in agreement and avoiding distractions where possible. Keep your tone calm, paced and clear.

Step four: ego states

Psychological and emotional factors such as shame or trust can be more anxiety provoking for a patient than fear of pain. 

Calladine and colleagues (2022) carried out a survey to identify the main causes of irregular attendance, which found that 61% were worries about judgement of ‘bad teeth’. To gain further insight into what ‘bad teeth’ relates to, a thematic analysis of qualitative responses identified themes of feeling shame, vulnerability, lack of control, long-term impact and cost. 

Furthermore, 86% requested to be informed of the overall condition of their oral dental health, including reports on teeth that looked in prime condition. Although it’s essential to inform the patient of the diagnosis, there is a tendency to just highlight the negative.

Transactional analysis

Another way we can communicate more effectively around setting patient expectations is through ‘transactional analysis’. A risk to a balanced partnership can be down to this form of communication and interaction that takes place between the dentist and the patient.

Transactional analysis is a psychoanalytical theory that was developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1950s as a method of communication that determines the behaviours through the ego state of the parties involved in the interaction. The three ego states of the personality are ‘parent’, ‘child’ and ‘adult’ as a basis for understanding behaviour and how we communicate as well as the roles we play.

The ‘parent’ behaviour is borrowed from what we observe from our caregivers in the first five years of our life. It can be displayed as ‘nurturing’ that is gentle and compassionate or ‘critical’ and may be seen as judgemental, hierarchical or condescending. 

The ‘adult’ ego state is the part of the personality that communicates accurately, using facts and no pre-judged thoughts. It is where the messaging and tone is healthy and balanced, communicating on equal levels between both parties. 

The ‘child’ ego state can be either playful or rebellious and can be emotional. It tends to mirror behaviours in ways similar to that of how we responded to our caregivers as a child, which may result in compliance or rebellious behaviour.

In trying to communicate, the two individuals can invoke and alternate between six ego states (three for each person). So, as you can see, getting the right balance of communication can be quite complex. 

A shift in perspective

If you approach a conversation with a patient as the ‘parent’, they could feel an imbalance in the relationship and as a result, the rapport and connection may break down. The patient may respond as the ‘child’ with resistance as they perceive you not as an equal or someone they want to work with. If there are two different ego states conversing this can lead to crossed transactions and often results in conflict.

What is required in this case is a shift in perspective from one or both involved. The ideal dynamic is to communicate ‘adult’ to ‘adult’ as this is a complementary transaction of communication and harmony when finding common areas of agreement. 

Ask the patient open questions, again, so they feel they are being heard and understood.

Instead of telling patients what they need (which will still be needed in some interactions), seek to understand the patients’ main concerns and desired outcomes for the treatment without judgment or assumptions.

Step five: positive reinforcement

It’s just as important to celebrate the ‘wins’ with a patient, whether that be good oral hygiene practice, good diet or brace removal post treatment. 

This positive reinforcement is a powerful way of connecting with a patient, especially at the end of their journey if you want referrals coming into the clinic. Patients who attend through referral are notably easier to work with, as they attend with a level of trust with the clinician already established. 

There is an increase in conversion rates from referral patients as they will be better informed of costs, understand what to expect, and have more confidence in the outcome. This means less stress and fewer complaints during treatment for the dentist, patient and dental team!

All in alignment

The way you connect and communicate with patients throughout the process is essential if you want to retain your current patient base, build loyalty and increase referrals. 

Assess how you are tracking on the different areas within the clinic, look for feedback and ways you can create a deeper level of connection with your patients. This will result in an increase in revenue, less patient attrition, and reduced failed to attend rates. You will even see reduced patient complaints as they will feel more aligned with the process and better integrated into the treatment outcome.

Lastly, ensure you are connecting with your internal team. This is just as important as how relationships are built with patients. Staff attrition can be a big challenge in a dental clinic, making staff retention a priority. 

It is necessary to find ways to ensure our team members feel they are contributing, and appreciated. This builds loyalty, as they feel part of the solution. 

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