How to increase communication in eight areas of the dental office

July 20, 2011
Hollie Bryant reminds her dental assistant colleagues that there are many opportunities to effectively communicate with patients and contribute to the entire team's success. She offers specific suggestions to use during these eight encounters with patients during a typical dental visit.

By Hollie Bryant, DA II

We are always looking for ways to be more effective with our communication within the dental office and with our patients. Patient care is based on communication. If the patient does not understand what it is that we are trying to inform them of, then there will be bumps in the treatment process, failure to accept necessary or elective treatment, and even errors within the office.

Take the time to understand that there are so many opportunities to effectively communicate with the patient and set up your office for patient satisfaction, successful dental treatment, and team success! The information in this article highlights and provides examples for specific areas where communication can be more effective.

1. The confirmation: Make it clear what the patient's appointment is for, how long the patient will be here, and that he or she will be getting their mouth healthy, out of pain, or even pretty. (What is your patient's motivation or drive?)

  • Example: Hi, Barbra, this is XXX from (office name). You have a dental appointment on Wednesday, July 20th, at 2 p.m. to get a crown done on the lower right. You will be here for approximately one hour. Please call us back at 999-9999 if you have any questions prior to your appointment on Wednesday. We look forward to seeing you and getting your mouth healthy.

2. The greeting: The patient is greeted by name; you must give eye contact, be personal, shake the patient's hand, and clarify what they are present for.

  • Example: “Hi, Barbra, we are pleased to have you here with us today! Ms. XXX will be taking you back momentarily. Is there anything that I should make her aware of before she takes you back?

3. The escort to clinical: When walking patients back to clinical, step out to the reception area and greet them by name. Shake their hand. Make sure that you pick up their purse, coat, or paper for them. Escort them back and get them comfortable. (You can even reaffirm what treatment they are having done on the walk back.)

  • Example: “Hi, Barbra, I am XXX, I will be working with Dr. XXX today to do your crown. We will do our best to keep you comfortable throughout your treatment today.

4. Seating the patient in clinical: Explain the treatment that the patient is having done, use photos on the screen (or take photos), review the medical history, and address any objections the patient may have (time, cost, fear, trust, lack of urgency, etc.)

  • Example: Barbra, I have a few things to accomplish with you before I bring Dr. XXX into the treatment room. First, has anything changed in your medical history since you were last in the office? (Pause for response) Today we are going to be doing a crown on the lower right side of your mouth. This tooth has a huge silver filling in it and a big cavity underneath it. I am so glad that we are taking care of that tooth today before it causes you more problems. (Pause for response) So you will be here for about one hour today, we will take all the old filling material out, the entire cavity, and then take some impressions for the lab to make you a very natural-feeling crown. The crown will be made out of all tooth-colored material. It will take about two to three weeks to receive the crown in our office. We really appreciate the meticulousness of our lab. Today you will leave with a temporary crown on that tooth. I will give you instructions for care at the end of your appointment today. What questions do you have about this procedure? Right now I need to take a preliminary impression, and then I will have Dr. XXX come in to get your tooth numb.
    Note: Not all states allow dental assistants to perform this duty. Check with your state’s dental board or go to the State-Specific Information section of DANB’s website at

5. The transfer to the doctor: This is a critical piece of the puzzle. Here is where you are bringing the doctor into the treatment process. You need to introduce him to the patient, share with him treatment that is happening today, explain any concerns or fears that the patient has, give affirmation to the doctor in front of the patient, and reaffirm the patient’s drive.

  • Example: Dr. XXX, you remember Barbra. She is with us today to have a crown on the lower right, tooth No. 31. It has a huge silver filling in it and a big cavity. I am so happy that we are taking care of this today. Barbra is a little nervous, but I assured her that you were the best at getting someone numb. We have already reviewed her medical history and there are no concerns that would hinder treatment today. We have taken our preliminary impression and our shade of the tooth. Ms. Barbra and I have discussed this treatment process and we are ready to go.
  • Example: Dr. response: “XXXX, thank you for your attention to detail. I am confident, Barbra, that we will get though this appointment today just fine.”

6. Treatment completion: Review postop instructions verbally and give a set of written instructions to the patient. Reaffirm the value of the treatment make appointment and escort the patient to the front (Please inform the front office of any treatment additions/changes or if a financial agreement needs to be prepared ... before the patient comes up!)

7. Hand-off to the front office:(The front office sees everything, phone, treatment, money, etc. ... and must stay informed.) Here is where the information is transferred from the clinical to the front office. This must be done seamlessly! Be very detailed. The front office needs to listen closely to the information so that they get their “marching orders.”

  • Example: Lori, today Dr. XXX worked on the lower right, tooth No. 31. We removed a huge silver filling and a big cavity. Treatment went well, we were able to get that area of Barbra's mouth healthy. I have reviewed postoperative care instructions with Barbra, we have made her return appointment, and she has her hygiene appointment for later this year to get her teeth cleaned. Please take care of Ms. Barbra from here. (Turn to the patient and thank her for spending time with you and the doctor and inform her that she was a great patient.)
  • Hand off to front office.

8. Front office to the patient: Front office now has confirmed through the transfer that the patient has his/her recare appointment, a return appointment for delivery of the final crown, has received written postoperative care instructions, and that today tooth No. 31 was treated. (WOW ... The front office is now aware of what happened in the clinical, if any treatment has changed, and what is needed from them.)

Example: “OK, Ms. Barbra, it sounds like Dr. XXX and XXX took very good care of you today! I am glad that they were able to take care of that tooth on the lower right before it caused you any pain. So you do have your follow-up appointments, I will be filing your insurance, and there is a co-payment of $100 that is due today that we did review with you when agreeing on this treatment. How would you like to cover that? (Take the patient's money.) Barbra, I look forward to seeing you in three weeks.

9. DONE.

Miscommunication causes tremendous stress on the practice, the doctor, and the patient. So many times we find ourselves scratching our heads wondering why treatment did not go as planned, but did you ever stop to evaluate the communication process in your office and see if there are any areas that failed? What could you improve on? Is this the missing link? Take the time to communicate with your patients clearly and on a level that they understand. Our line of work is 80% communication and 20% clinical skill. If we fail to communicate effectively, we fail our patients in their dental care process. Never assume that a patient should understand ...

Author bio
Hollie Bryant is a graduate of Bowman Gray Dental Assisting Program and is the former chairside assistant for Dr. Ross Nash and clinical instructor and treatment coordinator at the Nash Institute. She is currently a member of the American Academy of Dental Office Managers, American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, North Carolina Dental Association, Academy of Comprehensive Esthetics, and the American Dental Assistants Association. She is the former editor-in-chief of Contemporary Dental Assisting magazine and currently serves on the Advisory Board for DentalCompare. She is on the editorial board of Dental Assisting Digest and Contemporary Product Solutions, and is a consultant for various dental manufacturers. She has authored numerous manuscripts on clinical assisting and practice-management topics. Hollie lectures for the NICHE Practice Seminars nationally on clinical and management topics, while she travels for her independent consulting firm from practice to practice working with teams to increase customer service, profit, and implement effective systems. You may reach Hollie at [email protected].