What exactly do I mean by that? Isn’t it a health science? Not in the consumer’s mind, unfortunately.
First, appearance is a very subjective issue for people. Some care to an intense level about their teeth–how straight, how white, how much gum recession–and others can be comfortably missing number 9 and don’t even wonder what people are staring at. Those are the extremes, but we know that patients are all over the map when it comes to their dental care, most leaning toward neglect and procrastination.
And what’s worse is that since people mostly have to pay for their own dentistry, they often make very serious oral health care decisions based almost entirely on cost. This is in contrast to the rest of their bodies, where someone is going to fix whatever’s wrong at whatever cost, as long as they pay the co-payment. So they rationalize their irrational, short-term thinking.
And lastly, enamel is tough. It takes a lot of abuse, and the damage is so gradual that most often it goes un-noticed for decades.
So the burden is on the dentist and the team to amplify the value of good dentistry in the patient’s mind. And you also have to help them take a long-term view of their body. Every six months we hear of some new connection between oral and overall health, the latest linking perio disease and Alzheimer’s. But people smoke, eat low-nutrition food and don’t save money simply because they don’t consider the long-term effects of their actions.
So how do you do change this? Education? I’m going to take a radical view on this, and say “no”. At least not at the outset. People already know they should eat right and save money. But we are 40% obese and only 3% of the population retires financially secure. I suggest that education comes second. Remember your favorite teacher in high school? Didn’t you learn the most in that class? Same concept.
Which brings me back to the idea that dentistry is subjective. I think it starts with the experience of being in your dental practice. And I don’t mean the clinical experience, for the most part. I mean the atmosphere, the attitude of your team, the design of your office. My previous blog talks about having a remarkable team, and this is the cornerstone of that patient experience. I believe that having a great dental practice is what opens people’s mind to a long-term view of their oral health.
The most successful dentists I know have high treatment acceptance not because they educate their patients extremely well. Many times the patient doesn’t know much at all about the treatment itself (or doesn’t even want to know). But they like their dentist. They like going to her office. They like the people who work there.
And here’s something else: they get the sense that everyone in the practice genuinely cares about them. As human beings, not just as patients. And not just as a source of income.
So if we really want to help patients, we have to understand their psychology, and accept that to persuade them that their teeth are important, we can’t come at the problem directly. And realize that by creating an environment that is fun, comfortable, convenient and filled with compassionate people we open their minds, and their hearts, to taking care of their teeth. And that lays the foundation for the second step, educating them.
And let’s not forget that social media has become an excellent way for you to demonstrate what the experience of your dental practice is like, and for your patients to do it as well. Comments on Facebook, photos of happy patients, video testimonials and online reviews are all essentially revolutionary ways that people can discover what it’s like to be a patient of yours.
The general population sees dentistry as something that can easily be avoided or ignored, and that their teeth don’t have to be straight, their gums can bleed (“That’s normal, right?”), and their breath can be disgusting. But we know better. And knowing better hasn’t done us much good. We’re a lot like life insurance salesmen, trying to get people to think long-term and about something unpleasant at the same time. Tough combination.
So let’s try a different approach. Outsmart people for their own good, and offer them a dental practice they can’t resist. Hey, it might be kind of fun to work at a place like that, too!
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