Ask Questions About How Your Patient Feels 

May 13, 2024 Paul Henny DDS

Paul Henny DDS

I wrote about this topic last October in The Never-Ending Interview and wanted to revisit it to connect the timeless teachings with my most recent thoughts. Bear with me as I recount some of the history from that previous article. 

Dr. F. Harold Wirth had a very successful restorative practice in downtown New Orleans but he always felt that something was missing until he met Dr. L.D. Pankey and was influenced by his teachings. Dr. Wirth became a missionary for Dr. Pankey’s philosophy of dentistry and life, and he gave Dr. Pankey most of the credit for developing a deeper understanding of people, both physically and emotionally.  

One of Dr. Wirth’s key messages from the podium was that dentists are always presenting the case, even from the beginning of their first encounter with the patient. Another key message was that the patient’s feelings matter in accepting care and the patient interview should be forever ongoing. 

He said, “Every time the patient comes in, you’re doing a presentation. As a matter of fact, I think the interview is forever ongoing. It might only be one word, but every time the patient comes into your office, you should be interviewing them.” 

He said, “Ask questions that have to do with how the person feels. A case history is exploring what happened. An interview is about how they feel! You need to understand the difference!” 

We might ask, “Since I last saw you, have you noticed any changes in your oral health? How do you feel about these changes?” We might ask, “How do you feel about the appearance of your teeth?” or “How do you feel about the restorations we did?” We might ask, “At your last visit, you talked about the possibility of doing ortho; how do you feel about that now?” We might ask, “You mentioned last visit that you weren’t looking forward to Thanksgiving because it was difficult to eat all your favorite foods. Would you feel good about revisiting the possibility of replacing your denture with something more stable?”  

Do you feel better after a long conversation with someone who knows you well on the emotional level? I know I do. Over time, those kinds of conversations cause us to feel more positive and hopeful. They occur when a person gifts us their full attention while making no attempt to judge. And because we experience no judgment, we share more feelings, which leads us into an even deeper level of self-understanding. 

Doctor-patient conversations that tap into how a patient is feeling on an emotional level enable patients to grow in trust and to become more open to the possibilities we offer.  

In her recent blog series, Mary Osborne has encouraged us to journey toward health with our patients as fellow travelers because we all have health issues we hope to resolve. We can make connections over shared feelings and hopes. These connections bond us so we can pursue a mutual, positive goal with our patient.  

What I love and sticks with me from Mary’s blog is that the medical health review during each preclinical interview is an ideal time to check-in about feelings regarding health in general. So, if you and your team are not doing that now, you might want to add a question about the patient’s feelings about their current health. It’s ideal if the doctor or hygienist  asks the question. It may be as simple as “How do you feel about your overall health?” Wait for the patient to think and speak.  

One of my favorite quotes is this: 

Any kind of gesture that pulls another living soul out of despair is indistinguishable from magic. – Michael Xavier, Author 

The medical history review is a prime opportunity to demonstrate we care. Expanding our preclinical interview to routinely ask one or more questions that surface feelings related to health will give us opportunities to touch hearts on a deeper level. This will engender greater trust so patients more readily accept us as partners in their health.  

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Paul Henny DDS

Dr. Paul Henny maintains an esthetically-focused restorative practice in Roanoke, Virginia. Additionally, he has been a national speaker in dentistry, a visiting faculty member of the Pankey Institute, and visiting lecturer at the Jefferson College or Health Sciences. Dr. Henny has been a member of the Roanoke Valley Dental Society, The Academy of General Dentistry, The American College of Oral Implantology, The American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, and is a Fellow of the International Congress of Oral Implantology. He is Past President and co-founder of the Robert F. Barkley Dental Study Club.

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