What dentists can learn from Ronald Reagan

Whatever else you may have thought of him, Ronald Reagan was a leader if ever there was one. People followed him because he knew where he was going.

He left a towering legacy from his time in the Oval Office (1981-89), restoring America\’s strength and prosperity following a serious economic crisis as well as peacefully ending the Cold War among his many achievements. So what can dentists and team members learn from this ordinary man who achieved such extraordinary things?

Speak in plain English

Known for his ability to express his ideas and emotions in a personal manner, Reagan earned the nickname ‘The Great Communicator’. He spoke plainly, never using two syllables when one would do. He knew how to articulate what most Americans felt. He was the first president to use a prop in a televised address, using coins to illustrate the effects of inflation. He knew how to get what we call case acceptance. He made eye contact and told stories. It didn’t matter if he was talking to 10,000 people or one – it always felt like he was talking to you.

Dentists need to understand the power of stories. Too often, we assume that clinical education and before-and-after photos are enough to convince patients to do what’s best for their oral health and aesthetics. But photos are effective not just for the visual impact, but also for the stories they tell.

‘Here’s a patient, Mrs Smith, just like you. Here’s what we did for her. She’s thrilled.’ Tell the story behind the images you are showing.

Don’t be defensive

Reagan loved to be underestimated. When the then President Jimmy Carter attacked Reagan during a televised debate, he just replied: ‘There you go again’. Are you defensive about your fees or anything else about your practice? If a patient complains that a fee is too high, we might respond: ‘Yes, our fee is higher than other dentists, and here’s why’. Be proud of your services, your team and your fees, and patients will be receptive to your message.

Reagan was also well prepared for everything. Are you and your team ready for the predictable questions patients throw our way day in, day out? Do you have written training resources for new and seasoned staff members to turn to? Are you prepared for questions like: ‘Why do I need to come in for cleanings so often?’ or ‘I’m in pain – how can you talk to me about money?’

The answers you give to predictable questions like these can make or break your hygiene schedule, and indeed your entire practice. One wrong word may turn away callers who would otherwise be your patients. Most of us aren’t great at ‘winging it’, so have scripts on hand to handle these questions. Having a few key words and phrases on stand-by can instill understanding in staff members and confidence in patients.

Wear a velvet glove

Common courtesy was ingrained in Reagan, even in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease in his final years. Are we as unfailingly gracious to our employees and co-workers? Most of us assume we say the right things, but too often we take each other for granted. We don\’t say simple things like ‘Thank you’ often enough.

But under your velvet glove have an iron fist. The first crisis Reagan faced as president was the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike. He was advised to step in and mediate the case, a challenge for anyone. Air traffic controllers’ work is extremely stressful and demanding, and most of their complaints were legitimate. What’s more, their union endorsed Reagan in the 1980 election. Reagan was a union man himself, serving six terms as president of the Screen Actors Guild and leading its first strike.

Most troubling, the lives of thousands of air passengers were at risk. People said planes would crash if they were directed by inexperienced replacements. In addition, the air traffic controllers played a critical role in directing our military traffic. Any plane crash, whatever the reason, would surely be blamed on Reagan.

It would make sense for a new president to be a mediator, work out a settlement, pay back the group that supported him and not risk the lives of airline passengers. But for Reagan, the issue was black and white; it is illegal for air traffic controllers to go on strike. He felt there was no right to strike against public safety and upheld the law in the face of threats and intimidation. He didn’t fire anyone, but gave the controllers an ultimatum: show up for your job or your job will be gone. Then he carried it out. After that, everyone knew Reagan meant what he said.

One dentist I know had an office manager who was taking advantage of him. She didn’t do what was in her job description and did things she wasn\’t supposed to do. I urged him to confront her. He couldn’t, he said, because the patients liked her and she was the only one who knew how to use the computer system. What would Reagan have done?

Don’t criticise your colleagues

Reagan admonished his fellow Republicans of an eleventh commandment: ‘Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican’. Let us not speak ill of our fellow dentists. When you criticise fellow dentists, you’re telling patients ‘You’re stupid; you went to a bad dentist’. You’re telling patients that dentists can’t be trusted. As in every other profession, there are a few dentists who can’t be trusted, but all the ones I’ve met are caring and committed, and that’s the message we should be sending.

Trust without accountability is really blind faith. Does your office have a culture of accountability? Does each job position have clear expectations? Do you monitor results? Let all employees know your embezzlement policy. Define embezzlement and make it known in your employee manual that you prosecute. This statement in itself may even deter a potential embezzler.

Train your team to recognise improper behaviour, and let them know they can report such behaviour anonymously. They see more than you do and can let you know what may be going on behind your back.

Trustworthy staff members will appreciate following proper business procedures. After all, preventing embezzlement protects the doctor and honest staff members as well. It makes everyone more successful.

Confront problems

Fearing criticism could provoke the Soviet Union, no US president said a word when the Berlin Wall was constructed. Before Reagan, every president spoke of détente and co-operation. Reagan was the first president to speak out against the totalitarian regime.

At the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to open the gate and tear down the wall. Reagan’s chief of staff Howard Baker had urged the president to remove these lines from that speech, fearing the message was too unrealistic to be deemed presidential. We all know what happened next.

In conclusion, Reagan reminded us that our best days are ahead. Even his opponents respected him because they knew he was genuine and sincere in his beliefs.

Patients look to us for reassurance every day. They believe what we say when it is apparent that we believe what we say. That’s one reason so many admired Reagan, even when disagreeing with his policies. They believed that he believed. He would have made a good dentist!

Patrick Wahl, DMD, MBA, is the director of the practice management curriculum at Temple University’s School of Dentistry in Philadelphia, and among the most sought-after dental management consultants in the United States. He is the developer of several acclaimed management systems for private dental practice.

Patrick Wahl’s upcoming seminar Make Your Practice Twice as Good Monday Morning will be held at the Royal College of Physicians, London, on 11 May 2007. To book your place call 0800 371 652, email [email protected] or visit www.independentseminars.com.

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