5 tips for engaging orthodontic patients and getting better compliance

May 13, 2014
In the busy world of a dental practice, most of us are used to taking charge and telling our patients what they need. But Carol Jahn, RDH, MS, suggests slowing down a bit and asking these five simple questions to help engage your orthodontic patients in the conversation and potentially improve compliance.
In the busy world of a dental practice, most of us are used to taking charge and telling our patients what they need. Yet, slowing down a bit and asking a few simple questions can help engage your orthodontic patients in the conversation and potentially improve compliance. Here are some tips to help:

1.Ask permission before starting to talk, such as “Are you up for a discussion about your home care today?”
The first response for most of us is, “Educating patients is my job; I don’t have to ask permission.” And you would correct. However, if you want your patients to be engaged in the conversation, this simple courtesy can make a big difference. Once patients say “yes” — and rest assured, 99% will — they have made a choice to have the conversation. The dynamics have changed. You are no longer just telling them; they have agreed to the conversation and are now invested. This makes them more likely to tune in to what you are talking about.

2. Make your conversation an exchange of information.
Once we give patients a mirror, the next step is generally to point out the bad stuff — the plaque around the brackets, bleeding/puffy tissue, or white spot lesions. Instead of jumping right to what they need to do to improve the situation, try asking them if they know why the tissue gets swollen and bleeds or what causes the white spot. Only by understanding what they know or don’t know can you craft a message that is relevant and appropriate to their needs.

3. Don’t be afraid to use the back door.
Whether we are 8 or 80, most of us resist being told what to do. So, how can we get patients to want our advice? We can use the back door method. For example, instead of simply telling someone they need a water flosser, you might say, “Would you like to hear about a product that has helped other people (your age, with your same situation)?” Another clever approach is, “I don’t know if you would be interested in this, but I had a patient last week who had really good luck with a water flosser. Would you be interested in learning about how it could help you?”

4. Help patients see the goal is closer than they think.
We spend a lot of time with patients pointing out the areas where something is wrong. However, it can be worth our while to take a minute or two and point out the areas that are healthy. Focusing on what’s wrong can take on a life of its own, and it can seem overwhelming. Instead, try breaking the mouth down into percentages. Show your patient the areas that are healthy, and share that information with them: “See these areas of pink tissue and no bleeding? Seventy percent of your mouth is in good shape. Let’s work on the other 30%.” When you do this, the goal becomes more manageable, and it also gives patients confidence that they can achieve health in other areas of the mouth.

5. Make time everybody’s friend.
One of the most common barriers that people put up in terms of home care is, “I don’t have time.” Not only is it frustrating, but it is challenging to overcome. Most of us know cleaning between the teeth is not that time-consuming. So how can we broach this barrier? Instead of telling patients what they need to do, first ask them how much time they might have, in addition to toothbrushing, to clean between their teeth. Prompt them by asking, “Do you have a minute or two?” Most people will agree they do. Then tell them you have the product for them because it only takes about a minute a day.

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Carol A. Jahn, RDH, MS, has a BS in dental hygiene from the University of Iowa and an MS in continuing education from the University of St. Francis. She has been a dental hygienist since 1982; she practiced clinically for 14 years in general and periodontal practices. Currently, she is senior professional relations manager for Water Pik, Inc. She has published more than 75 papers and contributed to seven textbooks including the 10th and 11th editions of Clinical Periodontology. She is a past president of the Illinois Dental Hygienists’ Association and past treasurer of the ADHA, and a 2013 recipient of the ADHA/Johnson & Johnson Award of Excellence.