12 Jul 2013  •  Practice Management  •  5min read

Interacting With Your Patients – The Confidence Conundrum

Nigel Jones, Sales Director at Practice Plan, looks at the topics that arise in his visits to practices. This month he looks at the issue of confidence in respect of dentists’ interactions with patients.

Even after 20 years of working with dental practitioners, I’m still surprised at how often I find myself in practice meetings wrestling with the question ‘why do the dentists, who should be the most confident of their appeal to patients, seem to be the most insecure?’

Some of my recent practice visits have only reinforced this. Many have the committed team with great interpersonal and customer care skills, an excellent practice environment and location, established and respected clinicians and offer a complete range of services. And, of course, this is without mentioning, courtesy of a proactive practice manager, both internal and external marketing that professionally reflects the practice’s personality.

There are always areas to fine tune but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the biggest thing holding back some practices is the confidence of the dentists when they interact with their patients.

So, why should that be?

Maybe it’s partly a response to our media who rarely miss an opportunity to highlight, even in a light-hearted way, the negative aspects of a trip to the dentist along with the current penchant for the public to add comments to online versions of such news articles, which usually adds to the perception that dentists are almost universally mistrusted. If you think those are representative of the views of patients, it’s a small wonder that confidence might be low when approaching a conversation about a proposed treatment plan.

And yet the reality is that while patients may, to varying degrees, be sceptical about the motivations of the dental profession as a whole, they invariably trust their own dentist implicitly. Indeed, this was borne out by the findings of last year’s research by both the OFT and the BDTA into the attitudes of dental patients.

Perhaps the lack of confidence is to do with concerns over unrealistic expectations of patients and the fear any confrontation that might follow should there be disappointment with the outcome. If so, then it’s worth remembering that not doing anything can also lead to confrontation. This was illustrated by a case at this practice where a patient’s only disappointment with her treatment plan was that it hadn’t happened two years earlier when she first intimated her interest.

Of course, while most patients will greet, for example, a marginal change in shade with rapturous approval, there will be others for whom several shades whiter apparently looks no different at all.  However, so long as you have provided accurate and appropriate information before embarking on the treatment, it surely is not for you to take responsibility for an individual patient’s misguided over-optimism.

And therein, perhaps, lies the conundrum – the very attributes so suited to being seen as a fantastic dentist in the eyes of patients, a highly caring nature and overwhelming desire to keep them all happy, are the very attributes that undermine self-confidence. Disappointment can only follow if you aim to keep all of the people happy all of the time and you will be in danger of crippling yourself emotionally and commercially if you try.

What can be done to help?

But these statements, as my grandfather used to say, are ‘of the bleeding obvious’; so the question is, what can be done to help this practice unlock their obvious potential?

Well, many of the practitioners with which I work report that they have found courses by the likes of Ashley Latter or Simon Tucker very beneficial by helping hone their communication skills and the way they present treatment plans to patients.

Better utilising the interpersonal skills of other members of the team, in this case the practice manager (a qualified nurse) can also help address the issue, especially as patients can be more willing to ask the important questions of someone other than the dentist.

What can also assist to moderate the issue, as well as support the dental practice as a whole, is the adoption of a measurement culture that tracks, on a regular basis, indicators such as treatment plan acceptance, patient satisfaction, the number of complaints and any clinical issues. This provides some hard facts that allows any individual situations to be put in perspective rather than assume a disproportionate level of significance.

And finally, a bit of mystery shopping can do wonders for the self-esteem of all members of the practice team as it can be very gratifying to discover that the self-criticism that undermines confidence but leads to continuous improvement has propelled the practice far ahead of its local rivals.

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