Rate your chairside manner

March 21, 2012

Just about everyone can relate to having to laugh politely at a joke that’s fallen flat or trying to keep his or her eyelids open during a story that goes on and on. For dentists and dental hygienists, however, the question of whether it’s a good idea to indulge in a bit of humor to distract a patient or tell them a long, drawn-out tale is not just about relating to people, it’s about whether the end result is good customer service and helps patients maintain their health.

Just about everyone can relate to having to laugh politely at a joke that’s fallen flat or trying to keep his or her eyelids open during a story that goes on and on.

For dentists and dental hygienists, however, the question of whether it’s a good idea to indulge in a bit of humor to distract a patient or tell them a long, drawn-out tale is not just about relating to people, it’s about whether the end result is good customer service and helps patients maintain their health.

Jeanne Bosecker, a dental hygienist for five years in the Chicago area, said she has listened in on some cringe-worthy conversations with patients initiated by one dentist with whom she worked. 

Recalling the first time she assisted this dentist, Bosecker said she was wondering if a TV crew was going to pop up in the office.

“I can honestly say that I thought I was on candid Camera,” she said. “Because he was dropping the “F” bomb and he always had some story that’s over the top.”

In one case, he recounted how he had been called to treat a dental problem for Hilary Clinton, a story that Bosecker said grew more unlikely as he told it.

“Honestly, now I just tune him out,” she said. “It’s in one ear and out the other. I don’t listen anymore.”

Despite his style, Bosecker said some of the dentist’s patients love his free and easy manner.

“It’s just his personality,” she said. “That’s the guy he always been.”

Others, however, are not as impressed.

“I had a patient tell me she was not happy with the crown he put in, and she wasn’t happy with the F-word,” Bosecker said.

Learning how to relate to patients is a long-accepted part of the curriculum at dental schools, said Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical behavioral science at the College of Dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s such an important part of dental care,” she said. “Dentists have to be able to communicate with patients, talk about treatment plans and deal with anxious patients.”

To help dental students develop a chair-side manner, Raja said the school audio tapes some visits (with a patient’s permission) between the dentist and the patient.

Afterward, students and teachers listen to those tapes in small groups settings to brainstorm ways the student can better relate to and communicate with patients.

The idea is to help dentists develop the skills that can help put patients at ease.

“We talk about empathy and how to understand what a patient may be feeling, and reflective listening,” she said.

Reflecting listening involves re-stating the feelings and information another person is conveying. Raja said it is an easy thing to do and helps the patient know that what they have said has been received and understood.

“It’s not all about you (the professional) talking,” she said. “It’s about giving the patient the opportunity to ask questions.”

The communication between a patient and their dentist or hygienist often is not as simple an interaction as it may seem. There are goals that a health professional may be seeking, such as providing information that can help a patient choose a better path to take to ensure their health.

Raja said how to motivate patients is another aspect of the dental school’s curriculum.

“We talk about how to motivate patients for behavioral change,” she said.

As important as it is for dentist and dental students to be able to communicate with their patients, Raja said it’s not always easy particularly when a dentist or dental student may be focused on doing the technical job in front of them. Raja said requires being able to multi-task.

“The dental students are practicing their hand skills while they’re also practicing their people skills,” she said. “It’s like they’re walking a tight rope.”

She said while many dentists may need to brush up on their people skills, she said many go into the field because they like to work with people.

“They tend to be outgoing and they tend to like to work in teams,” she said.

Like Bosecker, who would urge the dentist with whom she works to change some aspects of his interactions with patients, Raja said if there is doubt about how a joke or story will be received, it’s usually best to save it for another audience.

“If you’re not certain how a joke is going to go over it’s probably best not to say it,” she said.

She said studies have shown that building a good rapport among patients and health providers can have many good results even reducing malpractice claims.

Bosecker said she doesn’t feel comfortable telling the dentist with whom she works to change his communication style because she does not think he would take the information in a positive way.

She said when patients are disturbed by a doctor’s style they usually speak with their feet, and then it’s too late.

“Most likely they just go shopping for another dentist and you never see them again,” she said.