Choose your words carefully

06 July 2024

Tif Qureshi explains how effective storytelling can improve patient outcomes.

The importance of effective communication within dentistry cannot be overstated. With the chance to gain new patients, improve appointment attendance and increase treatment acceptance rates, understanding how to develop the patient-clinician relationship best is essential.

One brilliant method of communication in modern dental care is storytelling. By listening to patient stories and telling those of the practice team, you may be rewarded with improved clinical and business outcomes.

It’s perhaps the simplest way to communicate, and recognising how to optimise the stories you tell can positively affect patient habits and choices in relation to their oral health care.

The clinical story

Patient choice is key. Many individuals are eager to engage with the decision-making processes surrounding their care. Presenting each of the available treatment options to a patient and the potential outcomes will help. People provided with decision aids feel more knowledgeable and better informed about their treatment and have a more active role in decision-making, which can help them choose the treatments they will truly be happy with.

Narrative medicine, a proposed model for facilitated shared decision-making, recognises storytelling as an important way to communicate a patient’s needs and a clinician’s understanding of the problem and proposed resolution. When practised with narrative competence, it’s thought to facilitate a patient-clinician relationship and can be a useful tool for information collection.

From the patient to the clinician, the stories told are generally used to communicate the origin and impact of an oral health problem. By listening to these stories with respect and understanding, dentists can respond empathetically, which is absolutely fundamental in the clinical relationship. It’s also conducive to reducing patient anxiety and improving perceptions of safety and understanding.

For many patients, telling a story may be the only way to put what they’re feeling into words. They give a time or place, noting when they first felt pain or discomfort, describing the most notable sensations, and in turn the clinician formulates a diagnosis and solutions to manage the problem.

By making patients feel understood, the experience increases trust and confidence in the clinician, and improved treatment adherence can be observed.

Reaching out to patients

Storytelling as a form of communication should not be limited to the clinical experience. Practices have the chance to tell their own stories when marketing to existing and potential patients, in order to see professional growth.

Dental professionals will have to consider ways they can present their key messages to an identified audience. These may include unique aspects of the practice that set them apart from local competition or specific problems they wish to treat. However, their approach must elicit a strong reaction and subsequent desire to seek treatment to be fruitful.

Studies find that storytelling is one of the most effective ways to initiate emotion in a customer, or patient, and facilitate the sharing of experiences to improve trust, and build a rapport with an individual. Stories also have an exceptional impact on our ability to retain information. When conveyed through a story, retention rates can increase from five to 10 per cent to between 65 per cent and 75 per cent.

If patients feel strongly about your practice, and can recall information about it clearly, they are then able to share it further with those around them. Awareness of your practice, its unique features and aims, and available treatments can then spread through word of mouth.

How to become a storyteller

You could establish pages on your website that are about your potential patients and the issues they face, such as dental anxiety or finding a clinician that holds similar lifestyle values, and place your practice as a ‘character’ that can support them.

The hooks in the narratives are your unique qualities that set you apart from other practices or clinicians – the support from your team, your eco-friendly approaches to dentistry – and the payoff is the brilliant care they will receive.

Authenticity is key, and communicating the team’s dental experience, hobbies, and interests can help you develop a memorable brand, as well as build trust with your audience.

Telling stories is one of the key aspects of the Business and Mindset Mastery course from the IAS Academy, led by Dr Prav Solanki, which provides clinicians with powerful marketing growth hacks for ethically gaining and retaining more patients. Prav, an owner of several successful dental and implant clinics, will share insights he has developed from more than 16 years in dental marketing, including how to develop a life balance, and how to articulate a brand voice.

By understanding how you can use narratives to develop connections with existing and new patients, you may observe greater interest in your practice and the chance to write a new story of your own.