Partnering in Health Part 4: Our Questions Shape the Conversation  

June 12, 2024 Mary Osborne RDH

By Mary Osborne, RDH  

The questions we ask on a health history form have more to do with disease history than health history, right? The focus is on disease right away. I like to shift that focus to health by saying, “I see that you’ve filled out this history and I’d like to talk to you about specifics, but I wonder if we can begin by you telling me a bit about your health in general? How healthy do you think you are?”  

I have found that if I start with health, I’m more likely to have a patient talk about health. If a patient says, “I think I’m pretty healthy,” I can ask, “What do you do to take care of yourself?” I can relate by acknowledging that I am trying to take better care of myself and how it isn’t always easy. Or I can pick up on something that is important to the patient, such as a concerted effort to get enough sleep or stick to healthier foods or to bicycle many miles a week. I can say, “Tell me more about that. It sounds like you feel better when you do that.”   

The questions you ask shape the conversation. And by the way, that does not just apply to reviewing a health history with new patients. It applies to every single interaction, with every single patient, with everyone on the team.   

When someone comes for their routine hygiene check, I might ask about their recent vacation or how their kids are doing, but I also always ask questions that open a conversation about health. Instead of starting with, “Have there been any changes in your health history since I last saw you?” I like to ask, “How has your health been since I last saw you?” Instead of asking, “Have there been any dental problems that you want us to pay attention to,” I ask, “What have you been noticing about your teeth recently? What are you noticing when you brush or when you floss?”  

We have to deal with disease. That’s a part of our job but moving toward health is more enriching. It’s positive.   

If you want to be seen as a partner in health, then moving the conversation in the direction of health is much more powerful than focusing on disease. The truth is everyone has a personal health story. There are things they are happy about and things they are sad about. When we take a little time to explore that story with questions, we and our patient gain insight into their experiences, attitudes, and feelings about their health. We and our patient get a better understanding of their motivations and the strategies they employ to become healthier. If we invite them to share their perspective with us, they will be more willing to hear our perspective, and we can extend an invitation: “Would you like to hear my perspective about that?”  

I recognize that inviting and engaging the patient in expanded conversations about their health may take a little more time, but it is effective time. Over the years, I noticed that when I thought I was being most efficient, I was generally being less effective. And in the long run, I ended up spending more time understanding what the problem was and trying to give more information without getting enough feedback to know if I was being heard or influencing the patient.   

One of my favorite things to hear from a patient is “You know, I never thought about that before.” I remember a woman who told me that she had been a smoker, but she had quit smoking. And I asked her how she did that. What prompted her? She said it was when her daughter was born that she realized that she didn’t want the smoke around her daughter. In her health review and preclinical conversation, she mentioned one of the things she did for exercise was tap dancing lessons, so I asked her how she got into that, and she said, “I figured I could spend time with my daughter, get exercise myself, and set a good example for my daughter. Wow, I guess my daughter is really a good influence on my health, isn’t she?” 

Those are the light bulb moments that light up my day.  

About Author

User Image
Mary Osborne RDH

Mary is known internationally as a writer and speaker on patient care and communication. Her writing has been acclaimed in respected print and online publications. She is widely known at dental meetings in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker. Her passion for dentistry inspires individuals and groups to bring the best of themselves to their work, and to fully embrace the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.




Getting to Treatment: Letters to My Patients 

May 22, 2024 Laura Harkin

By Laura S. Harkin, DMD  

My dad and I were enjoying our favorite lunch spot years ago when he turned to me and said, “Laura, isn’t it amazing? There’s an incredible sense of trust that our patients have in us. Sometimes, we give our best recommendation for treatment, and it is declined as if it weren’t important or a priority. I’ve recognized that, more often than not, our patients eventually choose to move forward, proving that it was more a matter of timing and circumstance than lack of value.” 

Trust is the cornerstone of our practice. It was transferred from patients to Grandpa to Dad and to me. I do believe that every morsel is earned through guidance, thoughtfulness, and skill. Trust is an entity that requires constant nurturing. In private practice, one should recognize that a doctor’s trust in their patient is equally as important as a patient’s trust in their provider. With synergy there’s the opportunity for optimal health. Even as a child, I had a very clear understanding of the care my dad had for his patients. This feeling is innate and deeply imbedded in me. I imagine that he felt the same.  

I don’t consider myself “a writer,” but I’ve always enjoyed the art of letter writing. I grew up writing frequently to my grandparents and friends and always loved picking out stationary that reflected my personality. Recently, I reread the letters that my grandfather typed on his old typewriter and my oldest brother scribbled on his Grateful Dead CD inserts – crafted just for me. It seems fitting then that I enjoy writing personalized letters to my patients. In fact, I’m pretty sure I salvaged my mental health during COVID by writing “updates” to my patients during months of closure. I digress. 

The letters that I write to my patients are most often in reference to comprehensive treatment. They provide a bird’s eye glimpse of our most recent findings, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations. My older patients, especially, appreciate my thoroughness, organization, and systematic approach to recommended treatment. These letters certainly aren’t handwritten, but the hard copy renders a sense of care that’s transferred from my hands to theirs. We must remember that individuals comprehend and retain information differently. The one-on-one, verbal, treatment consultation can become lost in the shuffle of everyday. Add dental language and complicated procedures to the mix, and that’s simply a recipe for confusion.  

Whenever I present complex treatment to a patient, I write a letter in everyday language to support our conversation. It’s stored in their digital chart as part of their dental record. In my first paragraph, I state my patient’s chief complaint. A summary of clinical findings followed by bullet point. Next, I provide my best treatment recommendation, an appointment sequence, and the financial investment. Photographs are also a helpful insert to aid in explanation for family members who were unable to attend the consultation. I think there’s value in a tangible letter taken home to revisit.  

Treatment letters are also an irreplaceable resource for my team. When a patient calls to schedule treatment previously presented, my stored letter immediately becomes a reference for scheduling appointments, including time allotments and space in-between subsequent visits. In my office, we offer a courtesy for treatment paid in full. This amount is figured in the financial investment portion of my letter so that conversations regarding immediate payment or a payment plan can easily flow. Should a case not be accepted prior to a routine recare visit, this letter serves as an excellent reminder during team huddle. It’s inefficient to page through multiple chart notes and software-driven plans with no explanation of the diagnoses which caused a need for restoration in the first place.  

In my first few years of practice, it was hard for me to accept that I needed to view this document as fluid with a potential need for multiple modifications to suit my patient’s desires and limitations. For example, financial concerns often lead to the need for phased treatment or a compromise from the ideal. I’m committed to openly discussing what may occur if no treatment is rendered or if a compromised approach is chosen. Likewise, I believe in the importance of presenting the financial component of extensive treatment myself. As the dentist and business owner, I must “own” the fee that I’ve carefully determined to reflect indirect and direct time, the skill level and support to be provided by my team, the technical excellence of my laboratory technicians, and my own knowledge. The fee that I present is steadfast, barring an unanticipated need such as root canal therapy. Should there be a need for additional chair-time or visits, it’s included in the quoted fee.  

Finally, my letters include my expectations for post-treatment maintenance. For example, if we are to complete a hybrid case in conjunction with a surgeon, I’m careful to share the importance of periodontal health and frequent maintenance visits to prevent peri-implantitis. In patients who have pre-existing medical conditions that when uncontrolled can be contradictory, I stress the importance of regular monitoring. Ultimately, I strive to empower my patients to choose and achieve oral health, Undoubtedly, oral health positively impacts overall health. My personal letters are a distinguishing trait of my practice that convey the level of care to be carried from presentation through treatment and in maintenance. Consider the value in this extra step! 


Related Course

Mastering Business Essentials

DATE: August 7 2025 @ 8:00 am - August 15 2025 @ 12:00 pm

Location: The Pankey Institute


Regular Tuition: $ 3295

Single Bed with Ensuite Bath: $ 345

The Blueprint for Running a Practice with Long-Term Growth Dr. Pankey’s original philosophy encouraged dental professionals to be proficient in 3 specific areas: technical mastery, behavioral excellence and business savvy….

Learn More>

About Author

Default Avatar
Laura Harkin