The Power of Story

There are successful dental practices alongside unsuccessful dental practices. Each one of them provides similar services and has similar patients, yet some succeed and others do not. So what’s the difference?

It’s really very simple. It’s explained in a story.

Would you like to hear it? It’s every dentist’s story and it goes like this.

A few years back every dentist was a dental student. And before this they were taking pre-dental classes, which were predominantly math and science courses. In fact most pre-dental students majored then, and still do even today, in biology or chemistry, not because they like these subjects, but because they want to be dentists and believe their chances are better if they obtain a degree in one of these fields.

The science classes in colleges and universities that are prerequisites for dentistry, medicine and veterinary sciences are popular, not because most of the students taking them love these subjects.  It is because they are required courses in order to become doctors. So the class sizes are large and often are taught by graduate students. This is because professors prefer working with those who happen to enjoy their particular field. They do not enjoy dealing with people who are only there for the grade. So why isn’t there more of a stink about this? It is because the unwritten objective of these courses is not to teach toward comprehension anyway. These courses are for the most part filters designed to weed out professional school applicants.  So if lectures are complicated, possibly given by someone whose native language isn’t English, and the course work impossible, and the tests completely unrelated to the material studied, it’s all good because it still works to thin overcrowded applicant pools. Not to mention this keeps students in school and paying tuition longer.

Pre-dental students in general also seek lightweight classes in the humanities because they already have plenty to do trying to get good grades in the prerequisite courses. The humanities have to do with the thoughts and behaviors of human beings, but because people are studied through a different prism than science, the one most important to pre-healthcare students, this part of life is dismissed as more or less irrelevant. This is why there is a division between science and the humanities that in real life does not make any sense.

All of this means for the most part that those selected to be dentists adopt attitudes and behaviors that handicap them when it comes to interpersonal communication. Ironically the biggest complaint dentists seem to have about dental school is the fact they weren’t taught more business, yet their real deficiencies lie elsewhere especially when you consider that some of the courses within business dealing with leadership, contract law and negotiations are really developed out of principles found in the humanities. Likely the only exception is accounting, which is a specific math skill.

Are there dentists who are exceptions to this description, who made it through dental school as well rounded human beings? I frankly doubt it — and yes I count myself as falling short here as well. Face it, the dental curriculum is not well rounded. It is very specific and fast-paced. Where students have had brief positive encounters with well-rounded dentist-instructors they may have picked up a few good habits or theories, but no one graduates dental school even close to fully formed and well-balanced. This is not to say many, if not most, recent dental graduates  entering private practice are not convinced they know what it will take to be successful. They absolutely believe that they do. After all didn’t they just succeed at something incredibly difficult and against incredible odds?

What’s left that can be so hard?

And this may be the most ironic twist in this whole story. The highest achievers, the most confident and successful in dental school, are the ones most likely to hit the wall harder and faster than their classmates. This wall is the discovery that patients and employees don’t like them and don’t take their recommendations seriously. This to them seems perplexing. They consider themselves bright and friendly people. What gives?

Some of these dentists, after hitting the wall a few times, conclude that the problem is some missing system or technique. Perhaps the problem lies in having to deal with less motivated, less success-oriented people all day long. The result of this belief and behavior can then be the hiring of personalities that mimic the boss’s. Employees learn quickly not to argue and do what they are told when under autocratic rule. Those who rock the boat don’t last long in this environment. But the results are mediocre at best. Everything seems an uphill struggle. The joy the dentist once thought would be his wears thin and soon disappears. All the sacrifice and work it took to get to where he is now seems disproportional to the result. And this is when you hear dentists say they wish they had done something else and don’t advise anyone to go into dentistry. The golden years of dentistry, they conclude, are long gone.

But then what explains the happy dentist, the one who loves what she does and seems to be surrounded by upbeat employees? Why are patients not only flocking to see her but also seem to accept the expensive treatment plans other dentists couldn’t seem to sell?

It isn’t a technique or style. It’s deeper than this.  More genuine.

In a word I would say they found their humanity. They discovered their significance in a way similar to Ebenezer Scrooge after one night with his ghosts. They awakened to realize that their view of reality was incomplete and humbled themselves to connect with others, not based on external social norms, but based on a common humanity. In a sense, they recovered from their educational bias.

It really does not take much of an imagination on my part at this point to know that many dentists, having read this far, are completely exasperated with me.

Am I diminishing the achievements and status of dentists?

Am I simply telling dentists that they just have big egos?

Actually no. What I am saying is that people have big egos, not just dentists and that sometimes the extraordinary work we have done to become dentists has actually inadvertently dulled our natural instincts when it comes to relating with people we do not know well.

In addition I would say if the same energy that was focused on becoming a dentist could now be harnessed at becoming an effective team leader for the office, rather than the unapproachable Mighty Oz, some of our latent and possibly buried dreams would begin to come to life. We would be able to tap in and harness the energy of others toward a common vision.

And the only common vision possible to share in a dental clinic setting is the dentist’s. No one else knows the therapeutic possibilities. No one else can diagnose and treatment plan. And know one else can successfully force the dentist to cooperate against his will. Even corporate entities trying to streamline dentistry to increase profitability will fail to achieve long term sustainable revenues unless dentists fundamentally buy in and lead their office teams. Any system that cuts corners therapeutically resulting in disgruntled patients will discover that the business will decline significantly in very short order. Passionless dentists cause practice atrophy and they usually do not see they are the primary cause for the decline. After all, they are simply doing what they were taught.

One good clue as to whether or not the dentist has not stepped into leadership is to look at the practice’s website. Was its content delegated to either an employee other than the dentist or placed into the hands of an outside company?  If so, it can look impressive and yet not differentiate the practice on the most important and only truly unique value proposition it has to offer, and that is who this dentist really is -what she cares about – why she should be the reader’s dentist.

That’s the biggest question a good patient will want to know. It isn’t really about   insurance or fees. Not at first at least. This comes next. The first question is “Will I like, and therefore trust, this dentist?” Second to this is, “Are the others in the office nice? Will I like them and will they like me and treat me with respect?”

So how can we as dentists convey an attitude of care and concern for patients that enables them to trust us with their dental care? The short answer is that they will determine whether or not we care about them based on how we treat others. This means the interactions within the office they both observe and experience will help them decide whether or not we are trustworthy, safe and competent.

So what are we talking about here? I thought the topic is how to have a successful periodontal therapy program.

It is, and as part of the answer, the successful periodontal program is always to be found in the successful dental practice. And the successful dental practice is always connected to the unique leadership qualities of the dentist. And the unique qualities of the dentist as leader are not found in the formal educational background that resulted in the formation of the dentist. Rather, the dentist has to step into his or her humanity to embrace the program and give it credibility with the team. In other words, if the dentist assigns the periodontal therapy program to others in the office and walks away the program is doomed. This is because the basis for this program is the dentist’s story given to patients by everyone involved, especially the dentist. If the dentist isn’t interested, then ultimately no one else will be either.

Also there must be a in-office cultural recognition that we are story tellers. The stories we tell are truthful but also engaging. We invite patients to listen, learn and interact, which looks nothing like the way the dentist was trained in dentistry. It isn’t force-fed at high volume and forgotten. The story outlines the purpose and principles behind periodontal disease and how it is treated within this office. It explains why the disease occurs and how it is addressed and managed. It becomes the road map, especially when, over time, the way forward becomes unclear.

Next time I will go through my outline of the story and show you how and why it works.