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Academy of Dental Management Consultants Corner: 3 questions to improve case acceptance rates in your dental practice


You are ready with your comprehensive treatment plan. The patient is in the consult room, his or her radiographs and photographs are up on the monitor, and you are prepared to share information, elevate the patient’s dental IQ, and have that patient want what he or she needs! You are at the end, about to close and reserve the first appointment but you notice that patient’s initial look of excitement turns to a pair of glazed over eyes that send the message, “I have just tuned out!”

For patients to make an emotional commitment and a financial investment, practitioners must adopt skills that are based on putting the patient’s needs first instead of just selling the treatment plan. Securing treatment acceptance for major and even minor cases requires three key elements: communicating and listening carefully, encouraging active participation by your patients, and ensuring that everything you do addresses their issues and not just your goals.

Investing time in understanding your patient’s oral health goals will pay off when your patients say YES to treatment instead of tuning out. It is appropriate, important, and just the right thing to do to begin by asking patients several questions that will encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings about their oral health.

Spending time with your new patients by getting to know their needs, wants, and desires for their oral health and for their smile will establish a solid relationship. This will also give you valuable insight into the patient’s perceptions, fears, expectations, concerns, and, most importantly, potential objections to treatment. The information that you gather facilitates your understanding of what motivates that patient.

So how do you go about gathering such information? It’s simple. Just ask and listen! Ask questions that will encourage your patients to share thoughts and feelings about their oral health.

You most certainly want to develop questions that match the type of dentistry you want to provide in your practice. The following is one of my favorite questions I recommend my clients use:

“Mrs. Jones, what are your goals for your mouth, your teeth, and your smile?”

This opening or initial interview question is all encompassing. It asks the patient to give you insight as to what they want restoratively, as well as cosmetically. If you pay close attention, you will gain all kinds of information about the patient’s attitude and their oral cavity: what it means to them, how willing they are to care for it, what immediate and long-term goals they have for their mouth, their smile, and more. You will likely get some insight about the person’s personality as well.

I was taught that listening is listening and nothing else! Passively listen so you encourage a person to “go on,” to “continue” or to “give you more information.” Make sure that your body language is attentive, your tone of voice reflects the patient, and that you encourage them to continue by acknowledging them with such non-stimulating responses as “really,” “I see,” “please go on,” “tell me about that,” and so on.

Once patients have given you as much information as possible, summarize what they want from you, and repeat that back to them. Hearing it repeated to them will help you confirm all the information that you need, while assuring them that you have heard them clearly and accurately. This builds trust, rapport, and gives you a strong foundation to proceed. So then ask them the following question:

“Tell me, Mrs. Jones, what are your expectations of me?”

You will be amazed. People will say things such as “I expect you to do a good job,” “I expect you to fix my smile,” or “I expect you to do the best you can.”

The final question, which could actually be the most important question, is:

“Mrs. Jones, what could prevent you from following through with our recommended treatment?”

Knowing in advance that patients may have time limitations, budget limitations, or possibly be fearful of all that needs to be done will assist you in assuring them that they have come to the right practice at this point and then providing the detailed responses at the treatment consult.

These questions have combined power. The first question allows patients to lead the way in discovering what kind of smile they want, the kind of picture they have in their mind’s eye, and the anxieties and/or the excitements that they may be feeling. You cannot push anyone into making a decision, but you can lead a person through a comfortable, informed decision making process by asking questions and listening. The better you listen to your patients, the better they will listen to you when it is time to make your presentation.

Use open-ended questions to get to the heart of what is going on, while motivating your patient to pursue treatment. They’ll talk themselves into proceeding with needed and/or desired treatment if you ask the right questions and respond with encouraging listening. You’ll be amazed at the magic that unfolds as you let the patients do most of the talking.

Now let's talk about the ultimate closing question...

Educational tools that assist the patient in experiencing, or ultimately co-diagnosing their needs, will prove invaluable as well. Intraoral cameras, digital photographs, and digital X-rays, for example, will give patients the ability to “see” their needs, which will be their key to wanting what they need.

Remember your audience when doing case presentation. The more technical and clinical the presentation, the more likely the patient is going to feel lost and uncertain about proceeding. Present the case in terms that patients can understand. Avoid clinical references, technical jargon, and trying to give them a four-year dental school education in 20 minutes.

You have asked questions and actively listened so now it is time to step up and present their treatment options and ask the ultimate closing question, “Is this the kind of dentistry they would like in their mouths?” The pattern of ask, listen, present, ask and listen begins again.

You may find that they come down with the “yes, but disease.” They want the treatment, but their list of objections comes tumbling out of their minds almost as fast as their head is swimming in doubt. Welcome objections and encourage them. Avoid the natural tendency to react defensively or feel frustrated. Objections are another means for the patient to gather information and are essential in enabling them to feel confident in their decision to pursue the recommended treatment.  

Remember, there are three primary barriers to securing treatment acceptance (time, fear, and money) so prepare for objections accordingly. Money is an issue for the majority of patients, and the patient will not proceed with treatment if he or she does not have an emotional attachment to the benefits. You must be prepared with financial options and be prepared to leverage appropriate financial partners to make financing comfortable for the patient while maintaining focus on what you do best dentistry (not banking)! Constantly revisit the information you uncovered in your initial evaluation process about the patient’s needs and desires as you present viable solutions for any fears that are suggested from your secondary questions.

In short, a patient who feels heard and understood will find it much easier to hear and understand. Then, you’re past that glazed “I-don’t-want-what-you-are-trying-to-sell-me” look and on to the “yes” as your case acceptance rises and your patient family grows healthier.

Editor's Note: For more information on the Academy of Dental Management Consultants, please click here.

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