2 questions your hygienist should ask every patient

Every patient visit can start off right with these questions.

Jun 8th, 2015
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A simple start to better patient outcomes

The majority of articles based on a bullet point list include a minimum of 5 and up to 10 or more points to consider. Attempting to implement numerous changes usually results in no change. I like to keep things simple. Numerous small successes not only build confidence, they are a steady march toward achieving your goal. The tortoise and hare come to mind. That is why this article focuses on only two points: The two questions your hygienists should ask every patient.

The vast majority of re-care visits start with the hygienist telling the patient (customer) what they are going to get—not asking them what they want to buy! That may sound like a strange approach, however, in this world of decreasing loyalty to the provider and increasing loyalty to the insurance policy, I believe it to be more accurate than ever. Twenty-eight years ago when I began, practicing patients were more “patient” than “customer.” Word of mouth referrals and a job well done were the lifeblood of successful practices. “He’s expensive but he’s worth it,” was a remark dentists loved to hear and patients were proud to exclaim. Those days are fleeting and being swiftly replaced by, “They take my insurance.”

The late 1990s “Think Different” Apple Computer ad campaign often comes to mind when searching for an avenue to help one of the practices I am coaching. How can practices stand out from the white noise that has become today’s dental soundtrack? “Insurance Accepted,” “$19 Exam and X-Rays,” “One Day Crowns,” “Implants,” “Free Teeth Whitening,” and on and on . . . There are some clever ads out there, but they are just that—advertisements, and not word-of-mouth referrals from current satisfied customers. So the question is, how do you decrease the money spent on clever ads and increase not only your case acceptance but your referrals as well?

Without further ado, here are the questions your hygienist should be asking.

Question #1: What would you like to get from today’s visit?

This is an open-ended question that makes the patient talk and give you information. A close-ended question such as, “Is everything OK?” permits the patient to answer, “Yes,” and the conversation is over. . . that is, until the dentist is called for the checkup and then the patient will disclose that a tooth has been sensitive, or ask about a cosmetic procedure, or raise other questions. If the hygienist asked what the patient wants at the beginning of the visit, the scope of the concern could have been determined and the hygienist could have taken any necessary radiographs or intraoral photos and spent time talking with the patient about their wants. What happens all to often is the patient raises the concern just as the doctor has one glove off and is heading back to the operative patient they just numbed. At this point, there is precious little time left to hear the patient’s concerns and react properly. This results in the lower case acceptance and the patient not getting what they want.

Question #2: What are your long-term goals for your teeth?

Almost everybody says they want to “keep their teeth.” Once that has been established, everything the hygienist says from that point forward is working toward what the patient wants—and people will buy what they want, not what you tell them they need! Let’s use Apple as an example again. Apple regularly sell tens of millions of new iPhones as soon as a new generation is available. Do all of those people need a new phone? Of course not—but they sure do want one.

This question affords the hygienist a solid place to stand when proposing treatment and eliminates the sometimes adversarial relationship between patient and provider. Anything suggested or proposed is solely to help the patient achieve their stated goal! How great is that? The patient gave the hygienist permission to talk about treatment, and the treatment is what the patient just said they want. It does not get any easier!

The scripting of these two questions will “break the ice” and allow the hygienist to easily transfer from the casual chit chat that is part of every appointment to what is the real purpose of the appointment. There is a well-defined amount of time for each provider-patient interaction. Many if not most hygienists have to freelance every visit, trying to figure out a way to tell this patient she “needs” a crown, or that the patient “needs” scaling and root planing. That is an uncomfortable and time-consuming exercise, so in many cases the conversation about treatment never occurs. The report from the hygienist to the doctor usually goes something like, “He looks good, needs to floss a little more.” That doesn’t help the practice, and it certainly doesn’t help the patient.

These two questions will undoubtedly allow the hygienist be more comfortable and effective during the visit, and, more importantly, help the patient receive the treatment we know they deserve.

Dr. Stan Michalski III, DDS, practices in a multi-doctor, multi-location practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is an in office coach, author, and speaker. Dr. Michalski is founder of Michalski Dental Coaching and can be reached at stan@theddscoach.com.

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