Effective Communication for Dentists: Q&A with Karen Burnett
Karen Burnett joined Aldrich as a dental practice consultant to help practitioners achieve the best results in patient care, practice management and team development. Her passion for the profession draws from over 30 years in dental assisting and dental hygiene and more than 12 years in dental practice coaching. Karen also has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in psychology.
How did you get your start in dentistry?
At 16 years old, I looked for part-time work to satisfy my interest in learning while earning a bit of money. I found the perfect job as a front office assistant for a local dental office. After working for a few months, the dentist took note of my curiosity and started my on-the-job training as a dental assistant. I found the work really interesting and thoroughly enjoyed helping patients. After finishing college and graduate school, I decided to go to dental hygiene school and pursue clinical practice. I continue to see patients part-time even after all these years.
What have your years of being a dental hygienist taught you about the role?
Our interactions with patients set the tone for their experience and give us the chance to build strong relationships. Every visit should start with some open-ended questions to uncover the patient’s goals for their dental care as well as issues to be addressed. For example:
- “How are things going with your health and the health of your teeth?” This question carries a more positive message than “Is anything bothering you?” and tends to get a more thoughtful response.
- “How are you feeling about your smile?” This question gives patients permission to share things that affect their happiness.
- For a new patient, I’d ask, “Is there anything about past dental visits that you’d like me to know?” This question surfaces concerns or roadblocks that have had an impact on prior treatments or relationships.
- For an existing patient, I might say, “Last time we talked about ____________. Has anything changed that you’d like me to know?” A change in circumstances may make the patient more – or less – open to certain kinds of treatment.
I always go over the patient-provided information with the dentist in front of the patient at the beginning of the exam. It allows the patient to make clarifications if necessary. The dentist will receive valuable input for use in the exam and be able to develop a customized treatment plan.
As a consultant, I work with new dentists to help identify their unique patient base to fine-tune their marketing approach. I also assist established practitioners in growing plateaued practices. Consulting gives me the opportunity for professional growth outside of clinical practice. I enjoy working with clients on their marketing strategy by reviewing and editing website content and customizing it to better reflect their targeted patient base, personality and clinical philosophy. By evaluating age demographics within a practice, we target which part of a patient population needs to grow to enhance the practice procedural mix.
Effective communication is among your strong suits. Can you give an example where that expertise comes into play?
Many dentists deliver treatment recommendations by drawing more heavily on their technical knowledge than addressing the patients’ concern for bottom-line results. They also don’t want to give the impression that they’re overselling. Patients often remain silent when asked if they have questions about their treatment plans, creating awkwardness.
I encourage dentists to approach patients as they would family while listening to what matters to patients. Dentists can then offer the best solution for their patients based on the specifics of each case and the patients’ stated goals. It’s often useful to talk about the consequences of inaction versus treatment and the ideal timing for taking action. A simple open-ended question – for example, “What do you think?” – can take the discussion to the next level.
Patients may need time to consider their options, and team members should be prepared to answer in a way that matches the clinical philosophy of the practice. If treatment will be extensive, a separate consultation may need to be scheduled. This allows time to address all options, considerations and questions the patient may have. Inviting a third party, like an interested family member, may also provide comfort and help them make a decision.
How does Aldrich help dental practices?
We partner with dentists to help make smart decisions about the growth of their practices. This could mean adding insurance benefits plans, suggestions about adding associates or hygienists, increasing productivity or discussing the types of additional services that might contribute to the growth of their practice. One of the best projects is developing a strong period program. This calibrates all the team members so that patients get a consistent message from the practice. Allowing the individual personalities of dentists and their practices to shine through everything they do in a productive way creates less stress. Establishing protocols sounds boring but makes each day run more smoothly. Without everyday hiccups, everyone can focus on patients and the growth of the practice — no more roller coaster weeks! Strategic scheduling is another area that we help with to make clinical days less stressful.
What role does communication play in running an effective dental practice?
Communication is everything — leadership, staff management, treatment plan acceptance, marketing strategies, patient retention and decreased employee turnover. As an example, effective staff performance reviews with measurable goals that coordinate with the growth areas of the practice can communicate expectations of both employer and employee.
What advice do you have for dental professionals who want to improve their business?
Hire a partner well versed in your field. Professionals with expertise in dental tax, wealth management and practice management consulting will have prior experience of similar situations. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Use your time and energy for the practice in ways that only you can do: performing the restorative dentistry.
What advice do you give to someone who is just starting out?
Formal training in dentistry focuses primarily on the technical aspects of the job. Yet good interpersonal and team building skills grow the competent practitioner into an exceptional one. I encourage dentists to find good mentors and use team meetings to calibrate communication skills. And, of course, you can always draw upon outside expertise for quality coaching.
Meet the Author
Dental Practice Consultant
Karen Burnett, RDH, MA
Aldrich CPAs + Advisors LLP
For Karen Burnett, enthusiasm for dentistry includes over 30 years of experience ranging from dental assisting and dental hygiene to more than 18 years of experience in dental practice coaching. She takes pride in providing results-oriented business solutions, using a tailored approach for the growth of individuals and teams. She is skilled in internal and... Read more Karen Burnett, RDH, MA
- Dental business management
- Hygiene program profitability and analysis
- Treatment presentation and incomplete treatment follow-up
- New patient recruitment and retention
- Practice administration