Trouble July 3

Treat dental patients as you want to be treated

May 14, 2014
When talking to your dental patients, remember your own experiences

“You have got to be kidding!” What do you do when you hear the news that you have receding gum disease and need gum grafts? (That is grafts, plural.) The fear that strikes you is not the pain you will have to endure, but the insidious pain that will smack you down in your wallet. That’s what hits you like a double whammy. I’ve invested $33,000 in this mouth of mine. This includes two sets of braces, an entire team of experts, and sleeping with orthotics that give me the worst morning breath imaginable. (I can actually knock out my husband if he gets too close.) So why am I sharing this with you, in this very public way? Because, this is a patient care issue. You need to think about how you give bad news to your patients.

Gum disease and receding gums make me feel like I’m not good with my oral hygiene. Maybe you think I don’t floss or scrape my teeth. (Can you imagine how long it takes me to get out of the bathroom in order to climb into bed with this regime? My poor husband is usually asleep by that point.) It’s really a downer. Sitting in the chair this morning, I listened to the doctor and assistant discuss my “situation.” “Hello people…I’m right here. I’m not invisible!”

How can you handle this differently and in a more patient friendly manner?

Rule 1: Don’t act as if the patient can’t hear or see
This just adds to the anxiety of what’s to come. You and I both know this will be expensive. Instead, give some answers or reassure the patient with an idea of how it’s going to be. Why cause anxiety to the patient? You aren’t a sadist!

Rule 2: Do not schedule a consultation to discuss this news three weeks down the road
If we wait three weeks, I have plenty of time to agonize about how much this is going to cost me. It isn’t like I can get an estimate from the woman in the business office. We don’t know what they’re proposing. Oh wait, can’t forget that wonderful experience where I had a reaction to epinephrine and they couldn’t numb me. Now I’m really worried! Hey, we even got another article out of me after that experience.

Rule 3: Acknowledge the patient
This doctor didn’t even acknowledge me after he said I needed an appointment to talk about it. How much is that going to cost? To be honest, does it even matter? The doctor could have said, “Let’s get together and talk about what we can do to save your teeth. Try not to worry about it. We’re on the same page. We’re committed to doing whatever it takes to get you to good health.” This is about reassurance, and that goes a long way.

Rule 4: Ask the patient if he or she has any questions, and then listen to the answers
You can’t drop a bomb like this and then ignore the patient. My fear of bankruptcy is going to be with me for three long weeks. Maybe we should just rip out all my teeth and start over! I don’t know if that will do anything for the receding gums, but it is an option, right? I need to know all options!

You wonder why I share this. It is important to make patients feel safe and secure. Great dental care is only one piece of the process. Another important part is the compassion. Don’t lose that because you’re pressed for time or don’t want to open Pandora’s Box. We aren’t just a “cleaning.” People are more than just patients. Imagine if you were in their position. What would help you get past the news of more physical and financial pain coming your way? The answer is simply compassion. Listen to your patients. Check in with them about how they are doing with the news. Someone can say, “We will put you on the cancellation list in the event that he has an opening so we can get you in sooner.” That is a great idea if I do say so. I’m signing off so I can call my doctor’s office and ask about this.

If you have any thoughts or experiences with your patients on this, send me an email at [email protected]. I’ll talk to you again soon. And by the way, they bumped my appointment up to next week. Hallelujah!

Lisa Newburger, LISW-S/aka Diana Directive, provides humorous ways to deal with difficult topics. Check out Diana’s website at