Patient-centered communication

Are you scaring away new patients?

Dentist New Patient

My tooth was broken, and I still had to psych myself up for the call.

I spent all day working up the courage to call the dentist.

I’d moved back to Seattle almost a year ago and hadn’t found a new dentist.

Did I mention I hate dentists?   

Or more accurately, I am afraid of dentists.

And by fear, I mean that I stop breathing when I think about going to the dentist.

So, it was panic-inducing when, while flossing, I noticed a small hole in a tooth on the lower right side of my mouth. The site was formerly the home of a filling that had never felt right in my mouth. And of course, not liking the dentist, I never went back to have the filling adjusted. Now the unhappy material had fled. I didn’t know when or how. And here I was with a hole in my tooth, and I had no choice but to confront a thought that sent electricity through my veins: I needed a dentist appointment, STAT.

When I was a child, I had bad teeth and a worse dentist.

I had a partial root canal at the age of 4. One time I had a tooth drilled before the Novocaine had taken effect (I believe an honest mistake on the dentist’s part, but painful nonetheless, and I was too young to properly speak up for myself). My dentist and his hygienist made fun of me. The dentist told me that he could write papers about how bad my teeth were. He called me a baby. Wouldn’t let my mother in the exam room with me. My sister never had cavities, even though she rarely brushed. I brushed twice a day, every day, and almost always had cavities. My sister was given stickers and toys. I was not allowed to take a toy from the basket because I was bad. This is the baggage I bring with me when I call a new dentist. It’s a lot.

So even though my tooth was literally broken, I put off the call to the new dentist until after a low-stakes, regularly scheduled department meeting at the school where I teach, simply because it was a reason to put it off. Then I waited until I drove home, even though I could have called from my office. I found reason after reason to avoid the call until finally it was 4:30pm, and the office closes at 5pm.

Eventually it was me sitting next to my phone, and there was nothing left for me to do but call or wait yet another day without addressing an actual broken tooth. And fear or not, not calling was too much of an adulting failure to accept.

So I willed myself to call out of a desire to avoid an evening self-hatred, and before I could think through what I was doing, the phone was ringing, and I was almost hyperventilating.

  The woman who answered was sweet and friendly. She quickly recognized I was a new patient and connected me with the office’s new patient coordinator, who gently walked me through making an appointment. While my call was transferred, I was on hold but only briefly. Both women referred to me by name and sounded happy to hear from me and empathetic to my problem. I still wasn’t happy to plan a dental appointment, but this office made the process as pleasant as it could be.

I share my dental anxieties not for sympathy (although please do feel free to sympathize!), but to point out that new patients can be fragile.

Even if a new patient is not as anxious as I was calling this dentist’s office, you don’t yet have a history or relationship with that patient. It’s important to do things right on that first call. One slip can send them elsewhere.

 Imagine if my dentist’s office had put me on hold for several minutes or had me listening to a recording, pushing buttons, instead of talking to an actual human. I probably would have hung up.

 It helped me so much that I was immediately greeted by a friendly person. I was able to describe my problem, and even tell them that I was anxious about my visit.

In reality, we can’t control how we are perceived by every person we interact with, but to the extent you can control it, be accommodating to new patients. Have a real person answer the phone. Write a loose script for front office staff to use when talking to new patients. Maybe even assign one employee to coordinate with new patients, like my dentist’s office did. Above all, make an effort to connect with them as human beings.

Because you’re not just scheduling an appointment, you’re starting a relationship.



Afraid of dentist