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Inside Dentistry
May 2024
Volume 20, Issue 5

Preparing for Common Patient Issues

Engaging in ongoing patient education efforts is essential to managing a successful dental practice. Whether it involves justifying the need for treatment or diagnostic tests, explaining the differences in available materials or treatment options, or conveying the expectations and procedures of the practice, effective patient education that builds trust can make all the difference in increasing treatment acceptance rates, improving patient satisfaction and retention, optimizing scheduling, and more. Some situations that require patient education are fairly straightforward, whereas others may require some thought or creativity on the part of the dentist to effectively communicate.

For example, a patient may say something like, "This tooth's not bothering me, so why do I need a crown now?" How many times have you heard this from patients? You explain the large unsupported failing restoration, the open margin, and the hint of recurrent decay, believing that your explanation is sufficient. But if you don't ever bring up this needed treatment again because you don't want to be too pushy, the patient may wonder if the crown was ever necessary. In this situation, patient education is essential. Beyond verbally explaining, take a picture or a scan to help patients visualize their needs. And consistency is important, so remind patients about needed treatment at every visit.

Regarding the need for diagnostic tests, a patient may say something like, "Didn't I just have X-rays taken?" Perhaps a couple of periapical radiographs were acquired during the last year to address specific concerns, but the current concern is in a different area of the mouth, or it's been 7 years since the last full-mouth series was acquired. How can you convey the appropriate messages to these patients diplomatically? One way is to have two handouts available-one listing all of the different types of dental radiographs and their uses and another that shows the amount of radiation exposure from different sources, including not only dental radiography but also things that patients can relate to, such as a cross-country flight.

When treatment options are presented, a patient may say something like, "Just pull the tooth. What will that cost?" We've all been here. Only approximately 50% of patients have dental insurance. Moreover, dental insurance was never intended to fully cover dental expenditures, and over the years, the benefits of these policies have failed to keep up with the rising costs of treatment. So, what do you say? Sympathize with patients. When they're calmer, discuss how treatment can be staged or present alternative treatment plans. Recommend possible options to help them afford treatment, including membership plans and healthcare financing or even receiving care at a dental school.

Effective patient education can also improve practice management. For example, you receive a text from a patient on a Sunday night that says, "Can't make it tomorrow." You could charge the patient a cancellation fee, but from your experience, you already know that strategy doesn't work to make patients more considerate. If this is chronic behavior, decide whether you want to keep the patient, bearing in mind any potential consequences among your other patients should you dismiss this person. You could consider having such patients call on a free day and spontaneously trying to fit them in, but the best solution is to provide new patients with detailed education regarding the practice's expectations for the timing of cancellations and any penalties involved. This sets the tone up front and prepares patients to act accordingly.

Oftentimes, patients will question the cost of treatment, saying things like, "I saw an implant advertised for $699, including the crown." How do you explain to patients that not all implants are created equal without sounding defensive? With the increasing commoditization of dentistry, some patients seem to base their treatment decisions on price alone. In this situation, explain that the implant you prefer has a decades-long track record, technical support, and a reliable product inventory and that dentists throughout the country will be trained and have the tools necessary to maintain it.

Like you, I have repeatedly dealt with these issues and others. It motivated me to create an outline of information addressing common topics that I intended to formalize so that I could hand it out to my patients. However, the project grew into an entire book. Whether you use a resource like this or create your own, I suggest that every dentist devote time to patient education. You likely already anticipate these questions, but preparing more extensively for how you respond to them can make a significant difference in helping patients to realize that you have their best interests in mind.

About the Author

Teresa Yang, DDS, has practiced dentistry in the Los Angeles, California, area for more than 30 years and is the author of Nothing but the Tooth: An Insider's Guide to Dental Health.

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