Techniques dentists can use to improve dental patient satisfaction understanding patients better.
This is equally applicable in general practice where there is the opportunity to get to know patients over many years or in a referral practice where contact may be limited to a one-off episode or a particular course of treatment.
Satisfaction with most encounters, clinical or otherwise, is often governed by the extent to which our expectations have been met. The purpose of managing expectations in the dental setting is to minimise any discrepancy between our patient's expectations and their actual experience.
Past occurrences often shape patient's expectations - affecting both the diagnosis and treatment. It should be obvious that patients who have visited a number of practitioners for the same complaint may have unrealistic expectations, which the dentist will need to address before attempting further treatment.
Hat and coat time
The first sixty seconds of any encounter are crucial to its success and we can use both the `meet and greet time` and also the patient's preparation for their departure to optimise that success.
Introduce yourself, make eye contact, use the patient's name and wherever possible, speak on the same level as the patient. Work on your voice: its tone, volume, speed and intonation.
The conclusion of the visit is equally important, because it is an opportunity to send patients away with the feeling they have been cared for: 'You were right to have come in today...' to an unscheduled emergency patient. Patients remember the first and last things we say. Make it a routine to invite patients to contact us whenever they are in need; we must stay connected.
The dentist must treat all patients as individuals and with dignity. To do this we need to demonstrate respect, and the sincerest form of this is genuine listening. We all know how discouraging it is to talk to someone who is distracted or who seems disinterested.
Understanding a patient's story is important, if we do not want to miss information that will prevent us oversimplifying their story, to fit our presumed diagnosis and treatment plan (paternalism).
Effective listening occurs when:
- We listen without interruption
- We paraphrase what has been said for acceptance and clarification: 'Let's see if I have understood you...' thereby demonstrating we have not just listened, but that we have understood.
- Responding without moving too quickly from listening to explaining, and whilst we speak, observing the patient's non-verbal body language.
Similarly, we need to look out for the expressions of patients which convey their expectations: I wish...I need...I'm looking for...and follow this by asking the patient to express their expectations: Tell me more...can you give me an example? Try and discover the problem the patient is trying to solve.
After listening, we need to explain our views, responsibilities and proposed treatment and methods to see whether we and the patient have similar expectations for treatment and outcome - or whether the patient's are significantly higher. If these cannot be modified, it might be wise to refer the patient elsewhere. There are diplomatic ways of saying: I can't, but I know someone who can!
Moments of truth
These arise when the patient has to decide whether they believe the dentist. In addition to creating a trusting relationship, every time we communicate, we provide an opportunity for our patients to evaluate just how well we are meeting their expectations.
We need to be:
- Reliable; delivering what we promise accurately.
- Responsive; which will be judged by our willingness and speed of response.
- Reassuring; conveying warmth and inspiring confidence.
- Empathetic; giving caring and personalised attention, expressing understanding whether or not we can personally give what is needed.
Our patients will only follow our advice, when they trust our competence and believe that we genuinely have their best interests in mind.
The consent discussion is an opportunity to detect unrealistic expectations. We must not protect our patients from information about the risks of treatment or complications which may occur. Patients should be actively authorising and not passively agreeing to their treatment plan; the patient who has assumed responsibility for a decision is less likely to blame us, when the outcome is less than was hoped for. Many clinical malpractice claims arise from results that take patients by surprise.
In conclusion, if we treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we stand a sporting chance for a successful practice and some satisfied patients.
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