The big issue of small talk

Soaps, sport or current affairs? Chairside chat plays an important role in putting patients at ease and building their trust, so it pays to keep your finger on the pulse of top topics of conversation.

Word of mouth |  dr paul o’dwyer BDS MSc (Healthcare Mgmt)

What do you talk about to your patients? I don’t just mean clinical treatment choices – but rather the pleasantries, small talk and general chat.

I have often thought that dentists would make the best chat show hosts. Seriously! Think about it. How many GAA, golf, rugby, horse racing facts do you know? Are you up to speed with the latest goings on in EastEnders, Emmerdale or Fair City? Have you expressed shock over Love Island or wondered who’s next to be evicted from the Big Brother house?

By this stage, you may be thinking that if you were up to speed on all of the above, you would do nothing except watch television. On a serious note, many dentists with whom I speak admit to a surface knowledge of current affairs, soaps, sport and a miscellany of other trivia – even though, in the main, it is a rare person who is totally absorbed by all of these at once.

Why do I mention this trivia?
It’s all about communication. In the UK, Campbell, Tickle et al recently published a series of papers on quality in dentistry.

“Staff putting patients at ease” and “staff attitude” loomed large in their qualitative questionnaires on patient attitudes to quality in dentistry. If we examine this further, it is often a “deal breaker” with patients. A further look at these studies revealed a lot more about what patients considered important for quality in terms of dentistry. The availability of appointments was ranked close to trust in the practitioner. Interestingly, the cost of treatment was further down the list.

Sometimes in practice we, as clinicians, become so focused on technical skill, surgical technique and materials that we often lose sight of what the patient views as important. It reminds me of what my old principle used to say: “You can do your very best work on shaping the palatal surface of the composite on the upper 6 – and it will go completely unnoticed – but if you have the slightest trace of discolouration after a scale and polish on the front incisors you will never hear the end of it!”

In an age where social media has become a double-edged sword, with both good reviews and scathing commentary, it can be a minefield to navigate around our new patients particularly. While one patient may forgive you for not being a United fan, another may be amazed that Love Island didn’t consume your every waking moment.

While I write the above with tongue planted firmly in cheek, it does raise the serious topic of communication and by extension, trust. If we can find common ground and areas of interest with our patients, it will make attendance at the surgery less daunting. A patient who is more at ease is a patient who is listening more attentively when the various options for treatment and intervention are being discussed. This in turn helps to cement the very important step of informed consent.

Which leads us back nicely to EastEnders and the soaps. I, for one, never watch soaps – I find real life far more dramatic – and certainly more time consuming. That said, in practice, I religiously read the blurb in the newspaper TV section excitedly announcing that tonight “….Tracy’s secret role in the car crash will be revealed…” on Coronation Street. This meant that for a particular cohort of patients, the line of chatter was very palatable.

This, in turn, helped to build the dentist/patient relationship and ultimately put the patient at ease. You cannot be all things to all men/women, and most patients will understand that you can’t be well versed in all interests. However, there will come a time, particularly for new graduates, who are honing their chairside skills, when the vital role of Tracy may mean the difference between a failed appointment and an accepted treatment plan. 

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Published: 1 December, 2018 at 18:56