How to Connect with Patients from Different Generations When Presenting Treatment Plans. Image: © Tinashe N/peopleimages.com - stock.adobe.com
It’s not hard to imagine an old caveman watching a younger caveman hunting with a spear and thinking to himself, “Kids these days don’t know how good they have it! Back in my day, we had to throw a rock at our prey, and we are grateful to have those rocks!”
Generation gaps are nothing new. While that distance between generations can be frustrating at times, it can be especially difficult when a doctor of one generation tries convincing a patient of a differetn generation to accept a treatment plan. Luckily, it’s not impossible.
Finding common ground is difficult enough when trying to accept another generation’s beliefs, behaviors, and preferences, but when one’s health is involved, it can be an especially tough sell.
“It is a challenge to connect with patients in general when it comes to treatment planning and presentation resulting in case acceptance,” Xavier Gardner, Director, Customer Success Operations at Planet DDS says. “Whenever you tell a person something is wrong with them, health-wise, it is a challenge. It is a unique skill for a clinician/treatment coordinator to be able to build rapport and trust with a patient where they can eloquently present a diagnosis in a manner that the patient can comprehend and accept.”
“Connecting with patients across the generational spectrum presents its unique challenges,” Diana McQuirter, DDS, Dental Director at Great Lakes Family Dental Group adds. “Each patient carries an individual canvas of experiences and attitudes toward dental health. Age certainly factors into this equation. We often encounter patients holding on to long-standing beliefs about dentistry, their perspectives shaped by decades of interaction with a particular dental office or dentist. So, as dental professionals, the onus is on us to delve deeper and ask incisive questions that help us understand their oral health, personality, and other dynamics at play that may influence patient communication and treatment plan acceptance.”
That disconnection isn’t always blamed on a generational divide.
“Connecting with different generations can be challenging, however, it is important to note that the difficulty is not solely attributed to an age gap, but instead surrounds education around a dental practice’s techniques, tools and technologies,” Russel Morrow, DDS, Chief Dental Officer at BIOLASE says. “Each generation has its own unique dynamic and characteristics that can impact how they communicate and engage with dentists and their care teams. It is my goal to provide each patient with the best quality standard of care, whether that is with conventional methods due to the patient’s comfortability or advanced dental laser technology for its quick and easy use, I accommodate each patient’s preference around their oral hygiene care. Once patients are comfortable, no matter the age, there is always a personal or professional aspect I can connect with them on, which improves the experience for everyone.”
Where Differences Exist
Dr Morrow notes that those educational differences tend to manifest themselves differently in each generation.
“Although there are differences between generations and how best to approach as a provider, the only difficulties I face surround education,” he says. “There is an educational gap from where dentistry was 40 years ago to now, which explains most preconceived notions around dental treatments. For example, Baby Boomers may prioritize a more personalized experience and approach to care with some hesitation around new technologies, while Generation X may value efficiency and convenience, while being more receptive to advanced technologies. Millennials, on the other hand, may insist on prioritizing technology and transparency in their interactions with dental professionals. It’s also important to consider that each patient is an individual with their own unique experiences, beliefs, and values that can influence how they approach the dentist offices. Therefore, it’s essential to listen to each patient and tailor communication and treatment to their specific needs.”
Gardener observes that each generation has its own preferred treatment communication style, styles that can be helpful to learn.
“I think for some elderly patients, they would prefer to have a dentist who has experience rather than a recent graduate, but for others that don’t have a preference, it is more based on specific generations having their own dynamics which the office needs to cater to,” he observes. “For Baby Boomers, most of them have had something previously performed in their lifetime so it is more a matter of speaking in layman terms and being a bit more direct when trying to present treatment. Often, they prefer a cheap fix rather than preferred diagnosed treatment. For Millennials and Gen Z patients, it is more about patient education and overcoming objections related to financial and time restrictions (these generations are used to doing everything on their phone and are a bit less loyal to businesses as they can go on Yelp and find another one if they don’t like their experience), while feeling like their practice has state of the art technology.”
Whatever the style, Dr McQuirter observes that generational differences are dynamic; that is, what might be apt today may not be the case tomorrow.
“The key challenge doesn't lie in the generational gap but in understanding the evolving landscape of the dental profession and your patient's unique dental history,” Dr McQuirter says. “The tapestry of dentistry has seen tremendous advancement over the last half-century, both in terms of materials and techniques. When we understand a patient's past interactions with the dental world––both positive and negative––we gain invaluable insights that help us truly personalize treatment strategies.”
For instance, she notes that technology continues to change the face of dentistry.
“Patient expectations and preferences have evolved with rapid advancements in dental technology,” Dr McQuirter says. “As a dentist who has collaborated with a diverse range of colleagues, from seasoned professionals to new practitioners, I've discovered how generational differences offer unique opportunities to enhance treatment plan acceptance for both patients and dentists.”
Bridging the Gap
What is the best way to reach across that generational divide to find a mutual understanding? For Dr Morrow, simply by virtue of the fact that he is in between generations gives him a trusted voice in each.
“I, fortunately, am in between an older generation and a younger generation,” Dr Morrow says. “This allows me to relate to both generations and their concerns while infusing new technologies, approaches, treatments, and procedures to their care. As the older generation may be used to a fearful and painful experience at the dentist, new technology that has come to light has allowed me to adjust their thinking and approach to certain treatments. Historically, root canals used to take around 4 visits, but since introducing BIOLASE dental lasers into my practice the procedure can be minimized to a single treatment. What used to be needles to numb, are no longer necessary as we are now able to enhance treatments with advanced technology, allowing for pain-free visits. This allows the younger generation to have instant results and a pain-free experience. This is causing a shift in the growing demand for the adoption of new technologies. Additionally, instead of outsourcing to an endodontist, this technology allows the patient to save time on appointments and money in their pocket. Overall, I think there is a fine balance between the generational gap, but half the battle is educating my patients so they understand the benefits and can have a better patient experience.”
Older generations may come across as technologically unsavvy, dismissive of modernization. However, those patients may be especially enamored with what’s new.
“When interacting with older generations, I've found that they often marvel at the technological strides we've made in dentistry when we are excited to tell them about it,” Dr McQuirter says. “Suppose you're taking over a practice from a retiring dentist who might not have kept pace with modern advancements. In that case, these patients could be experiencing dental technology, such as intraoral photos or scanned images of their teeth, for the first time. It's about presenting this technology with humility and confidence; otherwise, patients might misinterpret the rise in costs as unnecessary expenditures on flashy gadgets.”
And technology only continues to evolve and improve dentistry.
“Artificial intelligence (AI) has recently taken a front-row seat in patient communication, dramatically changing how we present our findings,” Dr McQuirter says. “For example, our team uses VideaAI from VideaHealth, which provides chairside AI x-ray analysis. Using a data warehouse AI Factory, the technology is constantly improving its algorithms, which have already been trained on 50 times more images than any dentist will see in their lifetime. This increases detection capabilities that help our team home in on potential areas that require further investigation and provide easy-to-understand visual aids for case presentation.
“The cutting-edge software in our scanners allows us to help get patients what they need faster,” she continues. “It stitches images together, fills in missing areas, alerts us when more data or adjustments are required, and even allows us to draw on 3D images to relay messages to our lab. If harnessed correctly, AI can be a tremendous boon in terms of time and cost efficiency.”
But while older generations may marvel at technology, the younger generations expect––and may judge you––by what you do and do not have.
“As for the younger, more tech-savvy generations, they are likely comparing your practice to others via social media platforms,” Dr McQuirter says. “Aware of the highly personalized patient education tools offered by other offices, they might be deterred by a practice perceived as ‘outdated.’
General Tips for Overcoming Generational Differences by Diana McQuirter, DDS
- Listen and empathize: Genuinely listen to your patients, understand their concerns, and empathize with their experiences to build trust and rapport across generational differences.
- Educate using technology: Use modern dental tools to educate patients about their oral health effectively. Intraoral photos and other visual aids bridge the gap between your knowledge and your patient's understanding.
- Adapt your communication style: Tailor your communication style to each patient's preferences. Some may prefer detailed explanations, while others appreciate a more concise approach. Asking patients about their preferred communication method is the fastest way to build connections.
- Showcase your expertise: Share "after" photos of completed restorations to demonstrate your skills and the benefits of the treatment plan. This step builds trust and motivates patients to invest in their oral health. Train dental assistants to always take pictures after restorations for efficiency.
- Emphasize prevention: Promote the importance of prevention and early intervention to patients of all generations. Explaining the advantages of modern techniques and materials increases treatment plan acceptance and encourages patients to prioritize their oral health.
“The root of these difficulties often lies in inadequate patient education from the dental team,” she continues. “Incorporating AI into our practice necessitates the entire office's shared enthusiasm and motivation. For example, when we demystify AI and explain to the patient what we are doing when we scan their teeth, I've found that most patients are genuinely impressed. As we gain experience and engage with more colleagues, we develop more concise, clear explanations to use with our patients, which can help alleviate fears and misconceptions about AI and who we are as dentists. This is especially relevant when we meet patients for the first time.”
While technology does a lot of heavy lifting toward case acceptance, interpersonal skills remain king.
“Establishing trust with patients is a critical aspect of dental care,” Dr McQuirter says. “Patients either trust a long-term dentist or require a new provider to make a connection. Actively listening to patients, understanding their perspectives on oral health, and learning about their past dental experiences is essential in guiding our approach to care. Often, patients leave their previous dentist due to feeling unheard or being ‘sold’ something they didn't want.”
Technology, especially AI, is a great tool for the clinician, but don’t lose sight of its use as an educational tool.
“From a software standpoint, some items that come to mind for younger patients that are differential,” Gardener says. “AI for imaging is a form of patient education to enhance case presentation/allows AI to underscore the need for treatment; sending electronic treatment plans via text or email, consent forms, payment portal links help attribute to patients saving time in the office; the ability to create a payment plan to provide more financially flexibility for patients to accept treatment and pay monthly via card on file or via third party financing options (ex. CareCredit); and online appointment booking allows them to easily book their appointment once they have agreed to the treatment.”
As with anything in life, money talks. No matter the generation, effectively communicating, the true costs of a treatment plan are essential.
“When it comes to cost and financial considerations this can certainly impact the communication,” Dr Morrow says. “It is important to be transparent about costs and payment options upfront to help patients make informed decisions about their care. Some patients may be hesitant to accept a treatment plan such as dental lasers due to the preconceived notion that it might be more expensive. This is why taking time to answer questions and discuss options with patients is so key. Often, after a few minutes patients are receptive and eager to move forward, especially once they understand that doing treatments in-house and not outsourcing to specialists, saves them money and time. It is crucial that we detail the small print to patients so that they are comfortable, and rest assured knowing they are receiving the best possible care.”
“Transparency and consistency are the bedrock of my approach to treatment planning,” Dr McQuirter adds. “I aim to develop plans that another dentist or hygienist would perceive as thoughtful and well-informed. I believe in establishing a precise diagnosis before proposing any treatment, which provides the patient with a rationale for our recommendations. By attentively listening to the patient's desires and constraints, we often can present them with viable options that align with their budget.”
AI can be used to leverage their work performance and communication.
“Setting the expectation for younger dentists to anticipate their work - be it crown preparations or fillings - to be displayed on large screens in front of their patients will prepare them for an impending shift towards more comparative assessments of dental work,” Dr McQuirter says. “Accurate coding of procedures, utilizing AI to ensure nothing is overlooked or needs adjustment before the patient leaves, and maintaining a transparent dialogue with patients are key elements in this transition. If properly adopted and integrated, AI has the potential to be your most valuable investment, driving significant improvements in efficiency and patient satisfaction.”
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to communication and the interpersonal skills between clinician and the patient.
“No matter the generation, people all want to know that you care about them and that you are treating them in the best possible way,” Dr Morrow says.
“Generational differences play a role in treatment plan acceptance in dentistry,” Dr McQuirter adds. “By understanding our patients, leveraging modern tools, and emphasizing prevention, we can overcome these differences and provide the highest quality care to individuals of all ages. Optimizing AI's potential in our dental practices can lead to significant savings in terms of both time and money while enabling better patient care. Together, we can advance the field of dentistry and create lasting, positive impacts on our patients' oral health. An individualized approach helps patients understand and accept your treatment recommendations, ultimately achieving the best outcome for each patient.”
Generation gaps have existed, forever, and likely will persist into the future. understanding the differences between what patience of different generations want and expect can help the doctor and acceptance for his or her treatment plan.