Tell it to them straight: Conversing confidently with patients

As clinicians, we’ve all “been there, done that” with “selling” the information we are trying to deliver. Part of our career responsibilities is educating those in our care on their oral health needs. But what if you aren’t comfortable with being a "salesperson"? Here's how you can confidently communicate with patients, creating good relationships and oral health in the process.

Aug 21st, 2018
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As clinicians, we’ve all “been there, done that” with “selling” the information we are trying to deliver. Part of our career responsibilities is educating those in our care on their oral health needs. But what if you aren’t comfortable with being a "salesperson"?

Maybe you received the Golden Scaler award in your hygiene program, or you got a 4.0 GPA throughout hygiene school, but you aren’t comfortable conversing with the patient in your care. I would like to share with you some tips that have worked for me to engage my patients in their own oral care needs over my career as a clinician and educator.

Confidentially educate in your operatory

What is in it for you? And patients want to know what’s in it for them. You are often a salesperson in your operatory. However, you are not selling a product or a tactile item—you are selling therapy, treatment, and an improved healthy lifestyle, among other things. People don’t want to be sold to when they know they are being sold to. The best way I have found to sell my “product” is to tell it to them straight: “Mr. Jones, you have periodontal disease. You will need periodontal therapy if you want to keep your teeth, and you will then need to continue with this therapeutic care for the rest of your life in order to maintain the health of your teeth.” You want to deliver the patient’s need, treatment options, immediate outcome, and long-term outcome.

You are the expert in the room

You could have the professor of mathematics at your local college in your chair, but you are the expert of his or her dental needs in that operatory. People, especially educated people, do not like to be talked down to, but they do respect those that know their fields. If you want to engage someone into their own dental care and needs, you need to know your craft inside and out. If your doc has just diagnosed a vertical crack on the root of tooth No. 30 and the proposed treatment is extraction, bone grafting, and implant with restoration, the patient is looking to you to explain what that all means as soon as the doc leaves the room. As long as you are able to explain it again and gain the trust of that patient, you have them engaged into their treatment needs. Be credible, and quote studies you’ve read, courses you’ve attended, and percentages of other patients with this same diagnosis.

Use plain and simple language, but not too simple

Patients aren’t going to understand that their ML cusp on No. 19 has been fractured and will need a crown because the width of the filling will exceed over half the distance between the two cusp points of this tooth. That is a mouthful just to say and type. What they are going to understand is that they broke a big tooth on the bottom left side of their mouth. This tooth is broken so much that it would require a filling that will take up more than half of their tooth, the best prognosis for the tooth will come from placing a crown over the tooth to hold it together. Right there I said the same thing but simplified it only a little.

Patients will become more engaged when you use wording they use themselves. Patients tend to check out as soon as you speak to them in terminology that they don’t understand. Find a way to relay the message. Some are visual learners, some are more audile learners. Have the wording for information, but also have videos, diagram, and other visual aids at your fingertips.

These are some of the ways I engage my own patients, among other others, on a daily basis. The most important way to engage a patient is be yourself and be relatable. Sell dentistry, sell the mouth-body relationship, and sell health to every patient. Being the expert means you have to have the knowledge that keeps changing. Evolve and change with times, keep up on your continuing education, and read the articles from those who have traveled this path before you. Finally, keep the dental lingo for the sterilization room with your coworkers. Make sure to explain what is said between you and the doctor while tools are in that patient’s mouth. Finally, engage in them and they will engage you. Make that person the most important person to you for that prophy, and you will find the mutual respect you both deserve.


Danielle Luhring, BHS-DH, RDH, has been practicing dental hygiene since 2006, when she graduated from Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa. Danielle received her bachelor of health sciences in dental hygiene degree from Allen College in Waterloo in 2017. Danielle has worked a clinical dental hygienist since graduating and as an adjunct dental hygiene instructor since 2016. Recently, Danielle began writing and editing for various dental hygiene publications, and has become a full-time faculty at Hawkeye in both the dental assisting and dental hygiene programs.

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