Effective patient communication is the lifeblood of any dental practice. It improves patient relationships, boosts case acceptance, increases practice efficiency, and enhances team morale. Plus, four in five patient complaints can be eliminated with better communication. Your practice will have reduced legal risk when communication becomes a focus too.
Watch our on-demand webinar below to learn how to communicate effectively and with confidence or catch the high points in this recap.
Resources mentioned in the webinar are listed below.
- Renew Practice-Web Support.
- Sign up for Practice-Web.
- Get a free Practice-Web demo.
- Contact Practice-Web Support.
- Take the Patient Communication Self-Assessment.
- Watch “Patient Recall and Reactivation Secrets of High-Performing Practices.” (Iron-Clad Reminder System)
- Watch the ASAP List tutorial.
- Watch “How to Boost Patient Collections.” (Dunning Messages)
Patient Texting Resources
- See the pwConnect product page.
- Start a FREE 30-day trial of pwConnect and lock in 50% off. (Special ends 8/31.)
- Watch “7 Proven Texting Strategies to Fill Chairs and Retain Patients.”
Mass Emails Resources
- See the pwNewsletter product page.
- Start a FREE 30-day trial of pwNewsletter and lock in 50% off. (Special ends 8/31.)
Smart Caller ID
- See the Smart Caller ID product page.
- Start a FREE 30-day trial of Smart Caller ID and lock in 50% off. (Special ends 8/31.)
- See the Pay-by-Text product page.
- Sign up for Pay-by-Text free in your Practice-Web Accounts Module.
- See the Payment Plans (DocPay) product page.
Benefits of Strong Patient Communication
- 68% of patients say providers need to improve how they interact.
- 4 in 5 patient complaints could be solved with better patient communication.
- Effective communication is the leading predictor of patient satisfaction — even more than patient comfort!
- 80% of medical errors are tied to poor communication.
- 30% of malpractice suits are caused by miscommunications.
- Team morale, case acceptance, and practice efficiency are all improved with better communication.
Patient Expectations of Their Providers
Based on patient surveys, patients want their providers to be:
- Respectful (9 in 10 patients wants to be in control of their healthcare decisions)
Keeping these things in mind when you communicate will help you meet their needs better.
Berlo’s Communication Model; What Happens When You Communicate
Under Berlo’s famous SMCR communication model, there are four parts.
- Source: The source is the origin of a communication. When we talk about the source in terms of patient communication throughout this webinar recap, we’re referring to you.
- Message: The message is everything being communicated. For example, this full page is a message.
- Channel: The channel refers to the five senses, which are how we send and receive messages.
- Receiver: The receiver is the person you’re communicating with. When we talk about the receiver throughout this webinar recap, we’re referring to your patient.
It helps to start thinking of every exchange you have with someone as a game of telephone. Under the SMCR model, the source encodes a message and sends it through channels. The receiver then picks up the message and decodes or interprets it.
In other words, what you intend to send might not be what you actually send or be understood as you intended by the receiver.
Sources and Receivers Are Impacted by the Same Things
- Communication Skills: The ability to speak, read, and listen impact both the sender and receiver. For example, a provider may be able to relay things clearly, but a patient may not understand if they can’t ask questions that help them assimilate the knowledge.
- Attitudes: How the sender and receiver feel about themselves, each other, and the subject make a difference too. For example, a patient who feels bad about neglecting their oral health may think the dentist is talking down to them or belittling them even if that’s not what the doctor intends.
- Knowledge: Understanding of the topic is also a concern. For example, a dentist may think taking a “wait and see” approach is prudent, but a patient who doesn’t understand this methodology may think the dentist doesn’t know what’s wrong.
- Social System: Our values, beliefs, religion, etc. impact communication too. For example, a patient may feel intimidated by a doctor’s status and not ask questions.
- Culture: Culture relates to values, beliefs, and religion too, but the origin is different. For example, a patient may come from a rural region with few doctors and be raised to believe that you should only visit a doctor when you’re experiencing an emergency. In this case, the patient may tune out all mentions of preventative care.
It’s helpful to place extra focus on how you communicate with certain types of people, such as those with disabilities, those in marginalized groups, people experiencing mental health issues, and those with extensive oral health concerns.
Race, for example, can be a concern. In a U.S. government study, more than 11% of Hispanic patients said “Providers sometimes or never listen carefully,” compared to 10% of black patients and 8% of white patients.
More than 13% of Hispanic patients also agreed “Providers sometimes or never explain things in a way I can understand,” compared to 9.6% of black patients and 6.6% of white patients.
Messages Come Through Multiple Channels
Messages aren’t just about what you verbally say. Your message, and the message the patient decodes, comes through a variety of channels.
- Hearing: Your volume, tone, intonation, and other sounds impact the message. For example, saying, “You missed your visit,” in a calm even tone could mean you’re concerned as to why. The same words said in a stern voice could be taken as a reprimand.
- Seeing: Things like your facial expressions, body language, and general appearance, as well as demonstrative models and other visual cues become part of your message. For example, saying, “You have a small cavity,” with your arms crossed can convey disappointment or even anger. Conversely, placing your palms up typically sends a subconscious message that you’re being open and honest or are non-threatening. Saying the same message with this posture may build trust and encourage the patient to move forward with treatment.
- Touching: Anything physically touching or affecting the patient impacts the message too. For example, you can say “This will be fast” to a patient while taking a posterior x-ray and intend it to be reassuring. However, if the patient is uncomfortable or gagging, the message they’re likely to hear is “Put up with this,” or “I don’t care if this is uncomfortable.”
- Smelling: We often don’t think of scent as a communication channel in dentistry, but it’s huge. For example, if you’re not fresh or are drenched in cologne, the patient will fold that into the message. Scents of the office, whether dental materials or aroma therapy, also make a difference.
- Tasting: Dental materials and the overall taste in someone’s mouth also influence the message. For example, if all someone can taste is decay or infection, or the impression material tastes bad, they’ll be focused on this instead.
7-38-55 Mehrabian Theory
The Mehrabian Theory hypothesizes that just 7% of what a receiver decodes as your message comes from your literal spoken words, while 38% of it comes from your volume, tone, and intonation, and 55% comes from non-verbal cues.
Barriers and What Can Go Wrong in Patient Communication
In the example above, we can see that a dentist discovered a cavity and wants to relay it to the patient. She says, “You have a cavity.” However, the patient is also listening to a handpiece, looking at a syringe, and smelling a clovey dental scent. His mouth tastes like yuck and it’s hot in the office too.
The dentist is likely intending to encourage the patient to have a small filling, but instead of hearing that message, the patient picks up on all the messages being sent and hears “Something bad is happening.”
Now, let’s look at the same situation, but with communication that’s more carefully managed.
We can see in this example above that all the detracting messages are removed. The office has soothing music playing in the background and plants that make it feel like home. The patient is smelling lavender, has nice minty clean breath, and has a cozy blanket too. The dentist also says, “We can take care of this cavity,” instead of just “you have a cavity.” The patient feels comfortable and confident that the dentist will take care of him. That’s the message he hears.
Noise in Patient Communication
Sometimes “noise” impacts messages too.
- Physical: Physical noise in communication is the kind of noise people hear with their ears. For example, a dentist may be chatting with a patient during a procedure, but the patient might not understand what’s being said over the sound of the handpiece.
- Physiological: Noise can be physical too. For example, if a patient is in a lot of pain, they may not be able to focus while you explain treatment options.
- Psychological: Sometimes noise can be in our heads as well. For example, someone who is worried about costs may be so focused on money while you explain options that they don’t really hear that they have options.
- Semantic: Semantics is all about how words are understood. For example, some studies suggest that when a patient hears the word “disease,” they think it means they have something that cannot be treated. Therefore, using the phrase “periodontitis” might be preferable over using “periodontal disease,” provided you take the time to explain the condition.
- Cultural: Actions, words, and behaviors can mean different things depending on someone’s cultural background. For example, research shows that people from South America are “close talkers.” They stand an average of 2.5 feet away from someone while talking. People from Romania are “distant talkers.” They stand an average of 4.5 feet away from someone when talking. Americans are somewhere in the middle. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how a Romanian patient might feel uneasy if you’re only two feet away while talking to them, and might focus on that instead of what you’re saying. Equally, extra distance between you and a patient from South America may make the patient think you’re cold or uncaring.
Putting Your Patient Communication Skills into Action
Watch the video for a walk-through of best practices for handling common situations including:
- The Initial Contact
- Patient Intake
- Practice Tours for New Patients
- Clinical Situations/ Exams (including hidden signs a patient doesn’t understand or disagrees with you)
- Case Presentation (including how to help the patient who says “Let me think about it)
- Handling cancellations
- Following up with unscheduled patients
- Billing encounters (including when the patient can’t pay)
- Sales and marketing encounters
- Patient complaints
Measuring Communication to Improve Your Results
Patient communication may seem intangible, but you can measure your success.
- Self Assessment: We put together a free online self-assessment you can use on your own. Click here to take it.
- Patient Surveys: Tools like pwReviews can be used to get a deeper understanding of patient satisfaction.
Get Help with Your Patient Communication
Our team is happy to train you on the features outlined here and help you get them set up. If you’re not already signed up for Support, renew here first. Get contact info or open a ticket on our Support page.
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