Listen to the Question

I heard recently that the most common question asked at Disney amusement parks is, “What time is the 3:00 parade?” (The time isn’t always the same, of course).  On the surface, it sounds like a stupid question.  But when people are in a new or disorienting situation,

they tend to be unclear when they ask a question. Disney employees, sorry, I mean cast members, know that what the guest is really asking is, “What time does the 3:00 parade pass by here?”   Not so dumb.

Often we have the same experience in dental practices.  People call asking how much a crown or a root canal costs.  They are asking that because they don’t know what else to ask!  What they’re really trying to find out is if the pricing is fair, and how much they’ll have to come out-of-pocket, and more significantly, is this an office they can trust to treat them fairly.  If they understood anything about dentistry they would ask if the dentist will fully explain the need for and the extent of any treatment he recommends, or what type of technology the office uses.
A more sophisticated patient would ask what the dentist’s failure rate is with crowns (most average 6%), or how long her composites last historically.  But they won’t because they really don’t understand much about dentistry, except that it is uncomfortable and expensive (in their mind).So when talking to patients, don’t allow yourself to get irritated by the dumb-sounding questions.  No one is doing a good job educating people about even the basics of dentistry, (except you with your patients,hopefully,) so they ask uninformed and misguided, or miss-phrased, questions.
Think about what they are really asking, and answer that question.  If someone says, “How much is a crown?” you can easily respond with, “It would depend on what you needed, and we can only know that after we examine you.  But our fees are very reasonable for the area, and we won’t do any treatment without you first understanding the costs involved.  Would you like to come in this afternoon at 3 or tomorrow at 10? I have those times available, and there would be no charge for the initial exam.”  It’s a little bit longer than, “The parade comes by here at 3:15,” but you get the point.
Or when they say, “Why do I need x-rays again? I had them last year,” they’re really saying, “I don’t want cancer.”  So explain that it is less radiation than an average plane flight, (or even living in a brick house.)  They don’t get it because no one on an airplane is pointing an x-ray machine at their face.If they ask, “It doesn’t hurt, why do I need to take care of that now?”  don’t get exasperated.  They are telling you that they have the average dental consumer’s perception about dentistry: pain is the indicator that it’s time to see a dentist.  This is the perfect opportunity to explain that pain means they waited too long.  And that they are not saving money or discomfort by putting it off, but rather the opposite.
Or, “Why isn’t this covered by my insurance?” They think their dental insurance is health insurance.  Not unreasonable to assume, by the way, just completely wrong.  So take the time to explain that dental insurance is really just a discount plan on some basic procedures. Also, in many ways it is the opposite of health insurance coverage, because the more catastrophic your need in health care, the better your coverage.  Not true at all with dental plans.  “Your plan was chosen and designed by your employer to save you some money on your dental care, but it doesn’t relate at all to your personal dental needs.  It’s our job to tell you what you need to keep all your teeth, and keep them healthy, and sometimes there will be a cost to you. But it’s probably one of the best investments you can make in your health and the quality of your life.”

We all ask dumb questions when we’re talking to an expert.  We just hope that expert understands we’re not dumb, just out of our element, and shows a little empathy.

One thought on “Listen to the Question

  1. I think what the patient is really asking is “Can I afford it?” The new patient needs encouragement that the office will work out financial arrangements for them.

    Thank you for this patient empathe
    tic article.

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