How to Handle a Clash of New Patient Expectations

One of the worst-case scenarios for a dentist is to find significant decay on a new patient who expects everything is fine.  How do you break the bad news without making the patient think you need the proceeds to buy a new boat?

Some dentists try to soften the blow by making their recommendations so wishy-washy that the patient is not only confused, but he also lacks trust in the diagnosis.  Other dentists get right to the point without considering the patient’s perspective, and the patient leaves overwhelmed and upset.

The most successful approach is to communicate the main issues.  First, call out the “elephant” in the room, which is the clash between the diagnosis and the new patient’s expectations.

“John, my diagnosis, which we are about to discuss, will most likely catch you by surprise.  From what you told me, you are not expecting much on your treatment plan.  Unfortunately, I found a number of teeth that have cavities.”

Next, take the patient on a tour of his mouth and succinctly describe why the teeth need treatment. Then offer some encouragement.

“I know this is not easy to hear.  The good news is we can return your mouth to full health.  And we are going to work with you to help you minimize future dental issues.”

Finally, involve the patient in the timeline for treatment.  Consider how you can pace treatment to meet his dental needs and have your treatment coordinator discuss how to fit treatment within his budget.  When patients feel like they are part of the decision making process, they are much more likely to accept “bad news.”

Worst-case scenarios sometimes happen during new patient exams.  The key is to handle those situations effectively to ensure the best outcome for the patient.

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