An Inside Look at the National Survey of Public Perceptions of Dentistry
If you have been in practice for any length of time, I’ll bet you think that you know your patients pretty well, don’t you? The research contained in this special report reveals that as an industry, it’s time dentistry went back to school on what patients really expect from you … their dental health practitioner.
What you are about to discover may change the way you see your patients, present treatment and how you handle some of the basic, routine aspects of your patient visits. Most of all, you’re about to discover the simple truths of what is going on in your patients’ minds today and what you need to do to stay ahead of the game.
The Crown Council was given the opportunity to help fund a significant study meant to identify public perceptions of dental health and the role dentists play in providing dental health services. We jumped on the opportunity because we felt it was time to see what was really on people’s minds when it comes to the dentist.
- One thousand adults representing all regions of the United States were surveyed.
- The sample was 48% male and 52% female.
- 82% of the sample indicated that they were Caucasian.
- The median age of respondents was 54.5 years, which is significantly higher than the National Census Estimate of 43 years.
To correct for any discrepancies, statistical analyses on both weighted and unweighted data were performed.
What we have attempted to do is translate the scientific data into a practical, easy plan for your practice in the form of understandable survey findings and some associated solid suggestions for your practice. Some of the results will not surprise you. Others may expand your vision of what you should be doing. Yet other results may be a little unsettling.
Survey Finding #1
“Tell me more about oral cancer.”
What I have always called the best-kept secret in dentistry is no longer a secret!
Why do I call it the best-kept secret? Years ago we started suggesting that when you do an oral cancer exam, you stop and ask the patient, “Has anyone ever done this for you before?” If you have ever asked your patients that question, I am sure you have been amazed at how many have responded “No.” Is it possible that there are that many dentists who ignore oral cancer exams? Or is it that they just don’t tell patients that they are doing, it for fear of alarming the patient?
Whatever the reason, patients are not ignorant about oral cancer anymore. Because of the media and the immediate availability of information on just about any subject via the internet, patients are becoming more and more informed about the real health threats and risks that exist.
- 85% of survey respondents indicated that it was important to them that their dentist check for oral cancer.
- At the same time, only 51% indicated that the dentist they were seeing actually did so.
- That means that 34% or one third of those surveyed were expecting something from their dentist that they were not getting…a discussion about oral cancer and an oral cancer exam.
It is hard to tell how many patients actually know that oral cancer affects approximately 30,000 new people and claims 9,000 victims each year. That is more than melanoma, which claims about 8,000 lives per year, or cervical cancer which claims 3,000 lives per year.
We’re not sure how many dental patients know that nearly every hour of every day, someone dies of oral cancer in America alone. Or the fact that the survival rate of an oral cancer victim is only 52% over five years, but that the survival rate rises to 80% if oral cancer is detected early. Unfortunately, only 35% of oral cancer is diagnosed early.
As the facts become more publicized, the alert and questioning patient would have to ask why melanoma and cervical cancer seem to get more attention in the media and in the doctor’s office than oral cancer does in the dentist’s chair.
Again, 83% of those who responded to the patient survey indicated that they felt checking for oral cancer was important, while only 51% felt their dentist was actually checking for it. The untold story here is how many dentists may have checked but did not tell their patients! Not telling the patient is not much better than not doing it at all.We’re talking about perception here. And you remember the old saying, “Perception is…reality.” It’s the patient’s reality.
How many of the 34% that expect a dentist to do an oral cancer exam and don’t perceive that one is being done, are going to make a decision at some point to change dentists in order to find someone who meets their expectations? We’re not talking about service expectations like friendliness, courtesy and amenities, but basic clinical expectations.
At some point, patient knowledge will start to question doctor competence and a decision to change will not be far behind.
So, here are some important questions to consider as a team and as a healthcare professional:
- What is your oral cancer detection protocol and why?
- Are you still using the old touch, feel and look around method for detecting oral cancer? If so, why?
- Have you incorporated the newer detection technologies like ViziLite or Velscope into your clinical protocol? If so why? If not, why not?
- Take the time to write out your oral cancer detection protocol for everyone on your team to see.
- Discuss it together; let your whole team know how you feel about early detection.
- Team members will communicate to your patients in the same way you communicate to your team. If your team does not perceive oral cancer detection to be a high priority for you, it is not likely that they will communicate it as a high priority to your patients.
- Everyone needs to be thinking and saying the same thing.
- Keep your practice and the entire team in alignment; write out your philosophy of care and clinical protocol for oral cancer detection. That way there can never be any confusion on your team as to where you stand.
- What are the verbal skills you are using with your patients to discuss oral cancer detection?
- Have you practiced those skills as a team?
- There is a perception issue that the survey results may indicate.
- 83% rate oral cancer as an important issue that they want discussed in the dental office.
- Only 51% perceive that it is actually going on.
- Whether that 34% received an oral cancer exam is unknown.
It’s time to focus on how this important issue is being discussed with your patients.
If, for example, you are using ViziLite or VELScope, the question of whether the patient’s insurance will cover the procedure or not is likely to come up. Does your team know how to handle that patient concern? It is just one example of many that underlies the importance of taking the time to discuss and rehearse the important conversations you and your team need to have with your patients. If you have not had a “group” rehearsal, it is not likely that the performance will be in unison. Since perception can create the patient’s reality, remember that how you discuss a health issue or procedure may be as important as doing the procedure itself.
The Total Patient Service Institute is continually working on the best verbal skills to use in the most important patient conversations like Oral Cancer. Here is just one example that you might want to consider if your Oral Cancer Detection protocol calls for doing an oral cancer exam using ViziLite.
During the initial exam with a new patient, the hygienist would give an overview of what is going to be done. “I see Pam, our patient coordinator, gave you some information on ViziLite that we use for oral cancer screening. Dr. Jones is strongly recommending that all of our patients do this every year. Has anyone ever done this for you before? This is what we do for all of our patients when we do their routine exam. In the past, oral cancer screening was just by touch, feel and look around, but now we are excited because ViziLite can show early signs of oral cancer that we would not have been able to detect in the past. Isn’t that great? For everything that we are going to do for your today, the total will be $229 and your estimated portion will be $77. Are you ready to get started?”
That is just the beginning of the verbal skills that need to be discussed with the team. How the procedure is introduced in the front office is equally important.
Handling the patient’s questions and objections deserves discussion and training with the team as well. As a service to the readers of this report, you are welcome to contact the ToPS Institute for a free copy of the most recent Oral Cancer detection verbal skills by email at
…or by calling 1-877-399-ToPS.
- Take the time today to decide what your oral cancer detection philosophy and protocol is.
- Get it down in writing.
- Involve your team by giving them the verbal skills they will need to have the conversation with the patient.
- It is important to your patients. They want more focus placed on oral cancer than they perceive that their dentist is giving it.
- It’s an invitation from patients that cannot be ignored.
Additional findings from the Crown Council-funded survey on what dental patients really want will be excerpted on this blog. They are described in full in the FREE e-book, What Patients Really Want, by Steven J. Anderson, available here.
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