After I graduated from dental school, I was excited to buy an office and hang my shingle to start helping people. To make a difference in my community by creating beautiful smiles. To change lives! I had honed my clinical skills and landed in an office with a fantastic hygienist to work with, a great dental assistant, and I was blessed to have found the most amazing receptionist to grace the planet! (Or maybe just the best one in Plymouth, Minnesota—but, hey things were good.)
So it came as a huge shock that within about two weeks I was secretly questioning whether I had made a colossal mistake getting into dentistry in the first place.
A few weeks after opening my doors, I was dragging because as a dentist, every day I came face to face with people at their worst. Dentists diagnose disease and suggest treatment, and yet people will refuse treatment they obviously need. As a dentist, we see cavities that are just moments away from needing endo, but patients look at us and ask, “Why would I do that? It doesn’t hurt, and I only want to do what’s necessary.” It makes me want to rip out the last few follicles on my head, or tell them, “Well, next month you’ll be Dr. Endodontist’s problem, not mine.”
I didn’t expect getting people with obvious dental problems to accept treatment would be harder than finding a calcified MB2. Sadly, they didn’t teach Clueless Negotiation 101 when I was a student at the University of Minnesota Dental School.
Here’s something you might not be prepared for
I hate being here is one of the most common phrases uttered in a dental practice. A tremendous number of human beings—more than 80 percent of people, in fact—are anxious about visiting the dentist, and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.
As a dental professional, you’ll find yourself dealing with dental anxiety in many ways. First, we have to listen to people complain … a lot. Every time someone says, “I hate the dentist! Well, not you, personally—just what you do,” I want to chuck my mirror across the room and say, “Great, because I don’t like patients like you, either!” But that wouldn’t help the cause.
Second, we have to work on squirmy patients who make our job more difficult. How many times a day do you think, “If this patient would just sit still, I’d already be at lunch, and we’d both be happier”? What about the patient who needs a buccal pit composite that will take 25 seconds to do, but you walk in the room and he’s already crying?
Then there are the jokes. “Why would anyone want to be a dentist? Gross!” “Is my new crown paying for your Mercedes?” “I’d rather give birth again!” I’m a happy father so I can’t really speak to what childbirth feels like, but I’ve watched enough to know that nobody would rather give birth than have dental work (except for the obvious result of parenting, of course).
So, what gives? Why do people hate what we do so much? The answer is relatively simple: The clinical aspect of dentistry, from our patients’ perspective, has not fundamentally changed in decades. Sure, we have CAD/CAM single-visit crowns and CT 3D imaging, but we’re still poking people with needles and having patients watch as the noisy spray of enamel goes flying around the room.
The fact is, people don’t like having clinical dentistry done. And we can’t blame them for this; I tell patients that if they liked getting dental work done, I’d be even more worried about them.
It’s 2018—be the change that dentistry needs
Each generation of dentists has an opportunity to change the narrative around what it means to receive dental care. In my humble opinion, my generation has failed to make your job easier; we’ve made gigantic strides in technology and what it actually means to receive care, but I don’t think we’ve focused enough on the patients’ experience.
I say this because people still tell me they “hate the dentist” every week, if not every day. There is absolutely no reason for this. Dentistry today is easy—for the patient, at least. While taking out that stubborn ankylosed lower molar on Bob may still make you sweat, Bob should not have to feel anything. We have advanced topicals, amazing anesthetic needles and articaine (with its rapid onset and profound anesthesia), as well as all the amazing technology that makes it easier for us to deliver dentistry, which in turn makes the patient experience better.
Here’s how you, a new dentist, can change your patients’ perspective on what it means to receive dental care in three easy steps that will make your patients’ lives better (as well as yours and your new team’s).
1. Spend the time to give patients a tour of your office. New patients love getting the lay of the land before you start talking teeth. Have someone on your team build you up, to ease the patient that they are in the right hands. Then, when you enter the room, authentically endorse the great team member who gave the patient tour. Also, don’t forget to offer a tour of your office to existing patients who may not have gotten one before; existing patients are your best opportunity to change the negative perception of dentistry, especially by referring you to their friends as a great doctor. If you want to leverage technology, include an online tour with video interviews with you and your team. Many people want to see you before they meet you.
2. Focus on comfort.It may seem obvious, but I talk to a lot of dentists who say they refuse to see anxious patients. That’s hard for me to fathom, but true. I, meanwhile, tend to absorb every bit of anxiety from the patient I’m working on, so focusing on comfort is as much selfish as altruistic—but the benefits of making people as comfortable as possible will pay off in spades. This really is at the core of changing the narrative around dentistry: just caring for our patients more. Perfect your anesthetic technique—it is an art—ask people how they are and offer a range of sedation options to make sure they are comfortable.
3. Leverage technology. Nothing can make a drastic shift in a patient’s mindset like game-changing tech that transforms what was a horrible experience to be “no big deal.” CAD/CAM, 3D printing and new technology like drug-free sedation through virtual reality (which can be effective as a light narcotic at reducing pain and anxiety in many applications) completely elevate our patients’ experiences. Too many dentists shy away from new technology or fail to implement it in their practice. There’s a common myth that “dentists like technology and will buy anything,” but while that may be true in their personal lives, I think many dentists let their practice fall behind.
The great new patient generator for new dentists
Let’s face it: Dentists don’t have many opportunities to change people’s perception of the care we give patients, or to transform our patients’ experiences to the point that people talk about dentistry in a positive light.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on every piece of marketing you can imagine for a dental practice, but I haven’t found anything that has resulted in delivering more new patients to my practice than focusing on their comfort by delivering an amazing dental experience. Instead of offering a free whitening or new patient special, change the way they receive dental care and you’ll have an endless stream of raving people coming to you.
The world needs a new generation of dentists that embraces technology, confronts the problems that have plagued our industry for years and, most importantly, practices from the patient’s perspective. If you do, maybe instead of getting frustrated when the next patient tells you, “I hate being here!” you can simply reply, “I understand completely” and offer them the latest way to take their mind off their treatment.