We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “I hate the dentist!” Or that polite but squeamish nod when we tell someone what we do for a living. There’s no question that some dental procedures can be uncomfortable and scary for our patients, and as a result, our patients might avoid preventative care and self-education. And what does that mean? It’s on us to be proactive about educating and advocating for our dental patients. This blog is all about the art of living proactively, specifically for dentists.

That’s why I’ve been doing so much work lately to get in front of general audiences. Podcasts, articles, YouTube shows, my TEDx talk…. There is a general lack of understanding about just how valuable our teeth are, and why they are worth caring for and preserving. So many people just don’t think about their teeth until they’re in pain.

Today, I want to talk about five ways I believe you can become more proactive with your patients, inspired by a recent conversation I had with Tony Winyard, host of the Art of Living Proactively Podcast.

You can watch the whole interview here:

Step 1: Become an Effective Educator… Even When the Information Feels Obvious

If there is one thing you take away from this blog, it’s that we have to stop making assumptions.

It doesn’t matter how educated or brilliant your patient is. They don’t have the same training we do, so there are things they just won’t understand. We really have to go back to the basics to make sure that they are truly informed and empowered in their own healthcare decisions. Don’t assume what they do and don’t know.

I just read a powerful book called The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements are a path we can follow to transform our lives for the better, and one of the agreements is to “not make assumptions.” As Ruiz says, “If we don’t make assumptions, we can focus our attention on the truth, not on what we think is the truth. Then we see life the way it is, not the way we want to see it.”

Let me draw an example from outside of the doctor-patient relationship. There is a concept in pedagogy called “Bloom’s Taxonomy.” It identifies different levels of learning in a pyramid shape. 

The most basic level of learning is Remember. If someone can recall facts, they have learned it. But let’s be honest about that eighth grade Spanish test… just because we crammed the night before doesn’t mean we feel like native speakers on our vacations to Mexico for the rest of our lives! The knowledge can be in one ear and out the other. For instance, this would be like me explaining to an assistant the SLOB rule so they can take great radiographs, and them remembering what I said.

The next level up is Understand. At this level, the learner can understand and explain ideas or concepts. They grasp the meaning of the instruction. So you can see that this is a higher level of learning. But it’s definitely not the top. In my SLOB rule example, the assistant understands what I’m saying, not just remembers it.

The place we want our team members to be when learning a new skill is Applying. At this level, they can not only demonstrate mastery of the task, but they can even apply their knowledge or skills to a similar situation. They’re thinking even deeper. The assistant is able to take radiographs using the SLOB rule, because they remember, understand, and can apply the concept.

There are three higher levels that are also helpful aspirations: Analyze (break down the info into component parts), Evaluate (judging the value and accuracy of the information or idea), and Create (producing something new from the information or concept).

My badass team has been trained on a lot of tasks that make my job easier. However, I have learned the hard way that it isn’t enough to tell a team member how to do something a few times. The supervisor has to actually SEE them mastering and applying the skill before their training can be considered complete. 

We can apply this to our patients, too. Like this…

Step 2: Play the Game of Starbucks

Have you ever noticed that, when you go to Starbucks and place your order, the barista repeats your order to you?

That’s not because they’re a broken record. It’s because they are demonstrating they understood your order and inviting you to make a correction, if needed.

You can do the same thing with your patients. When you explain to them what’s happening with their tooth and their treatment options, you can ask them to repeat back to you what they understand. For instance, you can say, “I know that might have been a lot to take in! Do you want to repeat back to me what you understand, so that I can fill in any gaps or answer your questions?”

I talk a lot about efficiency and production. I definitely want to maximize your production as much as possible. However, don’t sacrifice those quality conversations with patients. If anything, you can use the Bloom’s Taxonomy example above to teach your assistants to take more off your plate so you can give your patients quality time.

It’s our responsibility to communicate the importance of early intervention, especially when it comes to root canal therapy. All too often, patients delay seeking help until the pain becomes unbearable. That can lead to being forced to extract a tooth that would have otherwise been a good candidate for RCT. 

By making sure they understand that root canal therapy can resolve their pain and can often prevent the need for extraction, and that dental issues don’t go away on their own without treatment, we’re offering a ray of hope to patients who might otherwise have assumed the worst about having to lose a tooth or be in pain forever. 

But it doesn’t stop there. We must also be prepared to address the patient’s concerns and fears, ensuring they feel comfortable and informed every step of the way. We’re their advocates and trusted advisors!

So try the Game of Starbucks the next time you see your patients’ eyes glaze over! You can use the Game of Starbucks with your team members when you are training them, too.

Step 3: Use Technology to Instruct Patients

While we’re on the subject of teaching our patients so that they can become educated, empowered, and informed in their own oral care, let’s talk about different learning styles.

So far, I’ve been encouraging you to talk to your patients. But some people aren’t auditory learners. It’s tough for them to retain information by simply listening.

So, let’s engage those visual learners, too!

My favorite way of doing this is by using technology, because it has an automatic “cool factor” with patients.

For instance, when I take CBCT images, I like to walk the patient through exactly what they’re seeing. I explain what the cone beam is, how it gives us amazing insight into our patients’ mouths, and what it’s showing me about their specific situation.

I show them their tooth in a bunch of different angles, and sometimes I also use a model to match the slice to something that is more familiar to them. A lot of patients geek out about how cool it is.

Even more valuable is the confidence the patient gains in us. When we are able to demonstrate that we use technology properly, and we really know what we’re doing, they feel super secure in completing their treatment with us.

So, take this as your invitation to get more confident with the technology at your disposal. E-School is a great way to boost your endodontic knowledge, and there’s an entire module on CBCT!

Step 4: Understand What It’s Like on the Specialist’s End

When a patient comes into my endodontic practice, I ask them what brings them in today. Even though I might have their referral slip in my hand, I want to hear what’s going on, from their perspective, too! It is part of my diagnostic process.

But so often, they say something like, “I don’t know, my dentist just told me I needed to see you.”

First of all, I don’t really believe that. Almost all of the dentists I know are great about explaining what is going on with their teeth and what their treatment options are.

But I also know that, for many patients, it really is a case of in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. (This is why the Game of Starbucks is such a good strategy!!)

If they don’t have medical training, or they’re busy feeling super anxious after they heard the word “root canal,” they may simply not understand the full scope of what’s going on.

Alternately, some patients feel a little intimidated, and they don’t want to say something that could be inaccurate to the specialist.

So, please know that your specialist should do a full, comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. But you can help, even from afar!

Please take the time to thoroughly and accurately fill out the referral slip. And then emphasize to your patient that they must bring it physically with them to their appointment. Literally if they hear nothing else, it’s important that they hear that!

This is how we get insight into your patient’s concern, so we can relieve their pain and get them back to oral health.

Step 5: Save Teeth to Promote Well-Being

This wouldn’t be a blog post by me if I didn’t remind you to give teeth a chance!! My mission in life is to save teeth, and I believe all dentists should aim to preserve the natural dentition of our patients. 

Patients don’t always value their teeth the way I feel our pearly whites really deserve. As dentists, it’s up to us to proactively educate our patients about how important their natural pearly whites are.

Everyone knows your teeth give you a beautiful smile, but your patients probably don’t realize that their teeth also affect their nutrition, hydration, speech, and even their airway maintenance. You can explain to them that teeth are designed to house the tongue, helping maintain proper airways and speech. Plus, let them know that their teeth are the start of our digestion process through mastication.

Remind your patients that saving their tooth can positively impact their overall health, and can prevent the cascade of issues that arise from tooth loss, including jawbone deterioration and alterations in facial appearance.

While dental implants are an excellent replacement option, patients may not realize that they have limitations. Implants can fail, leading to further complications. Whereas they might not realize that a failed root canal can be retreated! Our teeth have nine lives, I swear — but extracting them takes those nine lives down to zero.

Being Proactive Is Good for Your Patients and You

The art of living proactively can lead to such a huge set of benefits for you and your patients. When you take these steps, you’re not only acting in your patients’ best interest, you’re also improving your own practice! After all, patients stay loyal to dentists they trust, and who are able to get them out of pain.

We can do so much more than fixing problems when they arise. When we empower our patients, we can guide them toward a lifetime of oral health and preserving their natural, beautiful teeth they were born with. 

For more tips and insights on proactive dentistry and endodontics, I invite you to attend my upcoming webinar with Michelle Adams, DA. She has been my dental assistant for over a decade, and now she is the clinical team lead at my practice. 

Michelle is teaching a CE webinar on October 18, 2023 at 8:30pm EDT titled Team Driven Endodontics: Empowering your team to create an amazing patient experience and increase productivity, and you can register for free by clicking this link. It’s going to be super valuable for general dentists, endodontists, and even your teams!

– Sonia