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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Partnering in Health Part 1: The Missing Piece 

May 1, 2024 Mary Osborne RDH

By Mary Osborne, RDH 

There was a time when I thought “partnering in health” was just about getting people to take better care of their teeth. 

Many years ago, I had a patient who was excellent with her home care, but she showed up periodically with an acute periodontal infection. We asked about stress and her overall health, but she was not aware of any issues. We would treat the infection and she would be fine for a sometime. We knew she worked for National Public Radio, and one day we made the connection that her infections showed up concurrent with NPR’s fund-raising drives. That shared realization allowed us to help her see that her stress was affecting her dental health and her overall health. She was open to conversations about lifestyle changes that would help her be healthier. My relationship with her influenced my thinking and my ability to connect with my patients from a perspective of Whole-health Dentistry. I came to understand that I had been missing opportunities to influence the way people think and feel about health. I knew that I wanted my patients to see me as “a partner in health.” 

Unfortunately, most of our patients come to us with the perspective that we are fixers of teeth, not partners in health. 

In the culture today people are bombarded with information about what is healthy. From friends and families, social and news media, and a wide variety of health care practitioners, everybody expresses opinions on how they are supposed to take care of themselves. Why, then, are we surprised when our patients don’t know whom to trust? Why are we surprised when they shrug their shoulders or appear confused? It’s not always a case of conflicting facts but a case of various perspectives that people don’t know how to navigate. 

Think about where you place your trust. How do you decide whom to trust about decisions—whether it’s about your health, or about your finances, or about how you raise your children? When I ask myself that question, two criteria surface. They need to know their subject and to know me. I want that person to know what it is they’re talking about. I want them to be well informed. I also want someone who knows me, who understands my values. I want that person to have a sense of who I am and what is important to me. 

As we get to know our patients over the years, most of them come to see us as trusted advisors when it comes to their dental health—but fewer see us as trusted advisors when it comes to their general health. If we jump too quickly to making recommendations about their overall health, we are more likely to meet resistance. If we want to cross the bridge into influencing our patients’ overall health and wellbeing, I believe we need an invitation to cross that bridge.   

The Missing Piece in our quest to influence the overall health of our patients is the failure to invite patients to share their perspectives on health. Beginning a conversation with a new patient with the question, “What can you tell me about your health in general?” is an invitation for them to talk about their experience of their health, not just details. Instead of “reviewing” health histories, what if we “explore” health histories? As we connect and get to know each other we can learn to listen beyond information to hear attitudes, beliefs, fears, biases, concerns, barriers, etc. As you understand their perspectives on health issues that come up in conversation, it’s easy to ask if they would like your perspective on that issue. These conversations often lead to more questions and answers that invite more and more invitations from our patients to be their partner in health. 

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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.

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What I Brought Back from Napa (and it wasn’t wine!)

February 2, 2024 Robyn Reis

What I Brought Back from Napa (and it wasn’t wine!) 

Robyn Reis, Dental Practice Coach 

A while back, I made a business trip to Napa Valley. I was enjoying lunch on the patio of the Ottimo Café which is attached to a shop featuring wines, gourmet provisions, and culinary tools. It was a lovely day, and I was out in the beautiful California sun by choice. A nearby covered area provided shade, and there were multiple diners inside the shop waiting for those shaded tables. 

The maître d’ had given me a choice of tables and made sure I was comfortable. The food, wine and service were excellent. 

A family of four wandered over and sat down at an empty table in the sun. One of the waiters approached them and must have told them there was a line inside because they got up and went into the building. A few minutes later, they came out escorted and sat with menus at the same table they had left. There was obviously a system in place and it was working. Not long after, the two children became unhappy sitting in the sun. 

Being a parent myself I empathized with the parents as they struggled to keep the kids entertained. The little boy put his shirt over his head to block the sun, and I watched the dad looking at the covered area to monitor those shaded tables. As people from the shaded area got up, the tables were cleared, and the maître d’ seated more people.  

There was a lag between one table being bussed and people being seated because in a flash, the family left their table and sat down at a shaded table. The maître d’ approached them again. The family was speaking a different language and the father was using hand gestures. Obviously, communication was difficult. Ultimately, the family remained seated at the shaded table. There was no doubt that “good” customer service for this family was out of balance with “good” customer service for the people inside waiting to be seated. 

It was fascinating to observe the maître d’ having a conversation with the waiter who had been serving the family. My guess is that he was saying something like, “Hey, stay alert to maintain the seating system.” The waiter only nodded. It reminded me of a dental practice where you may have a patient in the hygiene chair and think to yourself, “Oh, it’s a small filling. Let’s go ahead and take care of that today.” Unbeknownst to you, someone may have walked in the front door hoping to be seen, and the front office thinks the walk-in can be accommodated based on the schedule.  

In both situations, it’s best not to make assumptions and communicate, communicate, communicate! In the back, check with the front to see if that filling can be done now. In the front, check with the back to see if the walk-in can be accommodated now. And in the case of a scheduled patient waiting in reception, you don’t want to keep them waiting unless it is really unavoidable.  

Sometimes we’re going to disappoint someone, however, we want to plan our schedule so no one is left waiting. We’re not in the restaurant business where customers are willing to wait in line for a seat at our table. Despite a fine reputation, if you cannot see new patients within a reasonable timeframe, they are going to call elsewhere.  

Look at your own schedule and converse with your team. Do you have an adequate number of new patient appointments available? Are you allotting sufficient time for each type of procedure? How good is your back-to-front and front-to-back communication? Do you keep patients waiting? 

My meal and business trip were a success in Napa. And while I didn’t bring back any wine, I did bring back the importance of having systems in place to ensure a great experience for every patient at every visit. 

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