Managing patient expectations

Good communication is vital. Get it right and the chances are that the consultation will proceed uneventfully with a satisfactory outcome for both patient and dentist.

Communication is two-way. There is information passed from patient to dentist and vice versa. That information must be accurate and carefully assimilated – problems arise when accuracy is the casualty. There is, for example, a world of difference between acute pain and chronic pain. Patients commonly mix these two words and the result may be an entirely wrong understanding on the part of the practitioner.

Better communication equals lower risk. In any consultation there are useful pointers such as:

• Let the patient explain their problems and concerns without interrupting them

• Listen with genuine interest

• Repeat back what has been said to you to allow the patient to correct anything that you may have got wrong or that they haven’t explained very well

• Avoid using technical jargon

• Consider what your words will mean to the patient. ‘Won’t’ means ‘might’, ‘can’t’ means ‘could’ and ‘shouldn’t’ means ‘probably will’

• Back up what you have said with diagrams, photographs, leaflets, models and any other visual aids that might clarify what you have said.

The most difficult element of communication is managing patient expectations. It is often the case that a patient will hold a belief that a particular form of treatment is either available or likely to be successful when it is not.

Even simple procedures are not fully understood by many patients. Their expectations should be regularly reviewed during courses of treatment, particularly complex ones, to avoid a widening gap between what the dentist can deliver and what the patient can expect.

In communicating with patients, it is important not to allow enthusiasm to run away with you – never say anything that you cannot be sure that you can deliver. The following phrases can be compensation claims in the making:

• ‘I can give you a film star smile’

• ‘I can cater for even the most anxious patient’

• ‘I guarantee that you will not feel a thing’.

It is important to get everything right from the start, so that everyone knows where they are. The patient should understand any practice policies which will impinge on treatment and they should be clearly stated and explained. These include:

• Arrangements for payment

• Arrangements for making and cancelling appointments

• Information about the duration of appointments

• Information about what will be accomplished during each appointment.

Matching what you can deliver against what the patient hopes for is the real skill to ensure that the risk of disappointment is minimised, and to avoid being regarded as a failure and having to cope with a refusal to pay and possible litigation.

The patient is a customer and the whole team must be motivated to develop and maintain a customer focus. The same principl apply as they would to Marks and Spencer.

• Are the practice’s premises well maintained?

• Are waiting room seats adequate for your patients?

• Is privacy and confidentiality maintained at all times?

• Are toilet facilities adequate and of good quality?

• Are consulting rooms efficient and comfortable?

• Do you provide a practice brochure describing the practice, staff, services, opening hours, transport, parking, emergency care, NHS and private treatment and any practice policies?

It is essential that your workforce communicates well with patients and meets their expectations. The staff are, after all, your shop window on the world. They have the exceptionally hard task of being permanently pleasant.

However, it is no good if you treat your patients with care and consideration if your staff are rude to them outside the consulting room. They may need training to meet the expectations you place on them. Are you sure that your staff:

• Are courteous and have a friendly manner?

• Are able to act as the patient’s friend, adviser and supporter?

• Are able to negotiate and have management skills?

• Are good when speaking on the telephone?

• Are dressed in a professional manner, clean and smart? If they are all those things, hang on to them; they are worth their weight in gold.

Finally, think about assessing your services. Do you know how good your practice actually is? Why not ask the patients with a questionnaire. Their answers will confirm whether their expectations are being met. Ensure the survey includes:

• A review of the services provided by your practice

• The opportunity for patients to indicate any services they feel are absent or deficient

• Costs of treatment

• Attitude of the dentist and the rest of the dental team

• The ways the practice can be improved.

You might just learn something about how you are perceived by your clientele. Good communication minimises risk, while recognising and reconciling patient expectations will help keep you safe.

Quick Tips

• All information passed between dentist and patient must be accurate and carefully assimilated

• Let the patient explain their problems and concerns without interrupting them

• Don’t hype up the final results of a treatment – promising a film star smile will mean they’ll expect nothing less

• Make sure the patient understands any practice policies which will impinge on their treatment, such as payment arrangements and appointment cancellations

• Remember that patients are customers – you and your whole team must develop and maintain a sharp customer focus.

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