Patient communication can provide many challenges, even when the patient and dentist speak the same language. Patients have varying levels of health literacy, and dentists often fail to explain their diagnoses in ways that resonate with many of them, which can lead to reductions in treatment acceptance.
People want their problems solved to improve their quality of life, and to truly help, you must understand those problems from their perspective. Of course, you primarily focus on clinical findings (ie, conditions) and offer treatment plans (ie, solutions). But until you link the causes of those conditions to the problems that they create for the patient and then link those problems to your solutions, the patient may be left adrift.
Defining some of these terms in a “Communications Dictionary” can help practitioners understand how each relates to the others to result in effective communication:
Problem. The quality-of-life issue caused by a dental condition. A patient’s subjective perception of the dental condition results in a negative situation, and they want you to “make it go away.”
Problems. The issues usually come in four forms: appearance concerns, pain, lack of function, and/or lack of confidence that things are stable, healthy, and predictable.
Condition. The existing clinical circumstances. A condition is a state of being identified through diagnosis.
Cause. The origin of the condition, and subsequently, how the condition is the origin of the problem.
Solution. The plan to fix or remove the cause of the condition that is creating a problem for the patient.
This cycle: learning about the patient’s problem, discovering the condition that is causing the problem, and identifying the solution that will remove or fix the condition that causes the problem is essential to creating a patient-centered practice. If a practitioner fails either to pursue or communicate these connections, potential treatment opportunities may be missed or squandered.
A new patient comes in for a “checkup,” and you know very little about him. You perform a comprehensive examination and report several areas of decay, wear, and discoloration. A treatment plan is presented that amounts to $6,700. The patient says he will think about it and get back to you.
Case Example Revisited
A new patient calls to schedule a “checkup.” During the call, your patient coordinator engages the patient in a discussion that reveals that the problem is primarily appearance-oriented. At the first visit, the patient coordinator introduces you to the patient and, in his presence, reviews how he wants you to help him. Following your examination, you highlight the conditions (eg, decay, wear, discoloration) that are specifically causing the problem the patient has emphasized, as well as any other conditions you observe. Aloud, you link the conditions to the patient’s problem by explaining how they are causal factors and present a range of solution options that will address those clinical conditions. Your treatment plan choices range from $4,500 to $12,600. Finally, the patient coordinator helps the patient review the possible treatment solutions and fees and discusses payment options.
As illustrated by the revisited example, when you and your solutions are more responsive to the issues that prompted the patient to seek your care in the first place, he or she is much more likely to pursue treatment, and sooner rather than later. Of course, the dentist is also responsible for identifying any other conditions discovered upon examination, even if they are unknown to the patient due to the absence of symptoms. Practitioners should encourage patients to take those findings into consideration when considering treatment options. Only then will the patient be fully informed and competent to make oral health decisions that are in his or her best interest.
About the Author
Sandy Roth is a communications specialist who focuses on leadership, hiring, team development, patient relations, internal and external communications, and patient communication skills.