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Information consternation: When patients “do their research”

Jan. 13, 2024
It can be frustrating to have a conversation with a patient who is referencing inaccurate information, and often our inclination is to discredit the information with a rebuttal. But there's a better way.  

We live in a world in which information is readily available and relatively easy to access. With that, our patients are doing far more “research” than ever before. This can be positive in that we want our patients to be interested, informed and current when it comes to their dental health.

On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have a conversation with a patient who is referencing inaccurate information from a poor source, particularly when the information is in contrast to what we know to be true and contradicts what we recommend. 

Information that lacks credibility

We were taught in hygiene school how to identify credible sources. We also know how to look at scientific data to determine if studies were carried out using the principles of solid, thorough, unbiased, research. We know the necessity of evidence-based dentistry. Many of our patients may not have had this same training or keen eye with regard to research.

You might also be interested in: 4 things you can do now for better patient communication

Our first instinct when our patients reference inaccurate information is to discredit the it with a rebuttal. In my experience, however, that immediate and direct opposition can create a standoff between provider and patient.

What I have found helpful in these situations is to hear the patient out, even when you're not in agreement with the information. When patients feel heard and respected, they are far more likely to listen to you in return. A conversation may sound like this:

“Wow, Andrea, you came prepared for your visit today! I love when patients are interested and informed about their oral health. This is some really interesting information. What prompted you to look into this? Have you done further research to see if these claims are backed and unbiased? I spend a lot of time in continuing education classes and do research on my own to keep current. What I know about the topic you’re discussing is […]. Based on your specific dental history and risks, I am not sure if what you are citing is the best approach for you because […].”

This type of response fosters dialogue and provides you with a great opportunity to educate patients and further discuss specific conditions and risks, as well as to identify what is important to them. What could have been a frustrating push-pull conversation between you and the patient now becomes a platform for you to help elevate their dental IQ, assist them as they make decisions, and help guide them toward their best care alternatives based on their needs and goals.

The potential for self-diagnosis

Have you ever looked up your symptoms online to do a little self-diagnosing when you weren’t feeling well? This is pretty common today, and dental patients are no different.

Sometimes, patients will come with information that is consistent with potential diagnoses. Other times, the information they garner is not relevant to their specific situation, and can be quite far off-base. This information can occasionally be in conflict with what has been recommended. These situations can leave us with a patient who is now opposed to treatment or recommendations that we know to be in his or her best interest. Additionally, it could put us in a position where the patient starts to question the diagnosis. When trust is questioned, it can be the downfall of any relationship.

This is again an opportunity to recognize efforts, hear the patient out and begin dialogue that is specific to his or her individual situation. It can be helpful to identify with where the patient is coming from. “I admire your diligence to get information, and I understand how you arrived at your conclusion from what you read. May I show you [from x-rays, perio charting, photos, checking in with the dentist—whatever is relevant] how your specific situation is different from what you are referencing? I’m concerned about you making a decision where you may not have all the relevant information you need.” Having a patient that feels validated, cared for, and understands the rationale behind the specific recommendation can help facilitate resolution.

An unprepared provider

We work in a dynamic and ever-changing field. Information is constantly evolving, and it is our responsibility as professionals to stay current in order to approach patient care and respond to the research presented to us with the most up to date information.

Obviously, we all need to fulfill continuing education requirements to keep our licenses current. It’s great to take a variety of different types of classes, and some of them can be light and geared toward what piques your general interests. You do, however, want to be sure your continuing education roster includes science-based courses, like the latest concepts in periodontology, radiology, prevention, new products, and the like. Staying in the loop with the latest literature is also important. Even keeping current on what is happening in the news with regard to dentistry can help you to be prepared to answer questions from patients. You don’t want to be “out researched” by your patients. It could result in a lack of trust in your knowledge and abilities.

For as much as you learn, of course it is not possible for you to know everything that is out there. There will be times where a patient presents you with something that you are not familiar with. In those cases, it is again important to acknowledge the effort and interest level of the patient. The best approach here is an honest one where you share that you have not seen this information before and would like the opportunity to review it. It is important to keep to your word and to follow up with the patient once you have had time to review.

Effective strategies for addressing these challenges are critical tools to have at the ready. Additionally, for those patients who like to do their research, don’t discourage it. What you can do instead is show them where to look for the most credible information and provide some tips and techniques on how to critically look at information.

Despite the occasional challenges, try to look at that patient who is wielding his or her “research” as a positive thing. It shows that the person is interested and seeking information in your area of expertise. These conversations allow us some unique insight in to the patient. You can learn a lot about someone’s beliefs and interest level based on what he or she brings in to discuss. When we can respectfully hear someone out (even when their belief system is different than ours), this dialogue opens lines of two-way communication. See the opportunity that can stem from the challenge—you have the chance to share information, you may learn something new or something that gives you food for thought, or you may have the chance to help guide a patient to optimal oral care.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2018 and updated regularly

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].