What’s important to your patients?

As dentists, we are technical people. There’s no getting away from that. We need to get excited by the nitty-gritty details of treatment. Biofilms, apical seals, fissure patterns; these are all things that we agonise over in order to provide the highest standard of treatment that we can.

I’m not knocking it by the way. Of course this stuff has to be important to us. However, these skills do not make you a great dentist in the eyes of the people who matter; your patients.

You’re bound to be aware of this but it’s worth emphasising the point. Your patients can rarely judge you on your technical, clinical skills. Let’s consider a posterior composite as an example. You could spend ages carving the fissure pattern, restoring the original anatomy and staining the occlusal surface so you would hardly know it was there. You may be delighted with the end result and so you should be. It is vital that we take pride in the quality of our work. However, don’t expect the patient to be impressed. To the patient when they look in the bathroom mirror, it is not likely to look very different from any other tooth coloured filling.

Posterior composite restoration from a patient's point of view.

How to truly become an amazing dentist

I put it to you that to become an amazing dentist, you need to look beyond clinical skills and come back to the title of this article. You need to be focused on what’s important to your patients.

Your patients value the softer skills of a dentist. They value empathy, honesty and your ability to listen. They expect that you can fill a tooth, place a crown or extract a root; that’s all a given. However, they’re judging you on how you treat them as people much more than anything that you do to their teeth.

Patients want you to demonstrate that they are important to you. Do you take the time to listen to their concerns? Do they have your full attention? Do you invite them to explain further? The way that you listen demonstrates the type of dentist you are.

When it comes to planning treatment, patients want to see that you communicate in a way that is relevant to them. Do you make it simple for them to understand the issues and guide them towards the appropriate solutions or do you get bogged down in technical points, confusing the patient and leaving them anxious about what’s required?

And when providing treatment, are you reassuring the patient, thinking of their comfort all of the time? Or do you have tunnel vision for that one tooth and that beautiful restoration that you so long to complete?

A team approach

You do not have to be the most technically brilliant dentist to provide an amazing standard of care to your patients. And you don’t need a huge range of different clinical skills. You need a set of skills that allow you to provide routine dentistry predictably and well. Then, when more complex things come along, you simply need the ability to refer appropriately.

Patients will not think any less of you if you refer when a treatment is complex. By using simple phrases such as the one below, you demonstrate that you understand the importance of their dental health and that you have their best interests at heart.

This is actually a very difficult case and I would recommend that you saw my colleague. She is amazing and does this all of the time. If you go and see her, we have the best possible chance of success so that we maintain the health of your teeth.

By referring appropriately to skilled colleagues, you can provide an outstanding level of care without doing particularly complex treatments yourself. Patients will recognise this and value you as the decent, caring, considerate professional that you are.

Are you functional or are you vital?

I’ve got one final point to make on this. When you are providing a treatment for a patient, you are performing a functional task. Most dentists could probably do the same and if that’s all you do for your patients then you will always just be functional in their eyes.

On the other hand, great dentists move beyond being functional to their patients; they become vital. Dentists can become vital by simply focusing on what’s important to their patients. Listening, communication, empathy. When you demonstrate these skills to your patients and therefore demonstrate that your patients are important to you, you build trust. You build a relationship with your patients and you become vital to them.

When you are vital to your patients, they will go to see no one else. They will be loyal to you and understand your worth as a professional. No matter how amazing your clinical skills are, you are still performing a functional task. It takes something that little bit extra to become vital.

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