We all have playful expressions and euphemisms in our pockets that help put patients at ease and explain difficult dental concepts. The less "dental-ese" we speak, often the better.
I want to share a phrase with you that I've used successfully for many years. These are the first words to come out of my mouth when I sit down with a patient about a complex treatment plan. Picture yourself in a consult room or chairside. You've got the radiographs and patient in front of you, and perhaps clinical photos and study models as well. You've exchanged pleasantries, and now it's time to discuss your findings and proposed treatment plan. What do you say?
The first thing I say is, "OK, tell me a story." That's it. I stay quiet until the patient speaks.
The next words to come out of the patient’s mouth will be invaluable. Listen to the person’s story, their choice of words, and their tone. You'll start to get an idea of any potential obstacles they foresee, such as finances or length of treatment, whether or not they understand the importance of their care, and a sense of their dental IQ.
I used to just start rambling about tooth decay, bridges versus implants, cost ranges, blah, blah, blah. Now I ask them to tell me a story so I can figure out what we need to talk about first.
Here are two answers I've heard before. "Well, I guess I need some fillings, but nothing is really hurting me right now," and "I know I need a lot of work but I'm ready to do it. I'm embarrassed to smile, and I have difficulty eating. I've put my children first for the past several years and now it's time for me to get back on track."
Wouldn't you agree that your consultation approach should be totally different for these two patients? The first seems almost defensive; there's probably a barrier to care that they’re not sharing yet, and we'll need to sort that out. They may also have a low dental IQ and not realize that the absence of pain doesn't mean they don't need treatment. The second patient, on the other hand, is ready to go. There's no need to waste time lecturing about the importance of oral health.
So, there it is: "Tell me a story." It's an innocent statement that will help you learn more about the human being attached to those teeth.
Editor's note: Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly