How to be nicer

Dr Sandra Short believes a few courses on emotional intelligence at the start of her career would have benefited her enormously.
Dr Sandra Short believes a few courses on emotional intelligence at the start of her career would have benefited her enormously.

A focus on sharpening your emotional intelligence will have benefits for your patients, your staff and ultimately your business. By Catriona Menzies-Pike

You’re a perfectly proficient dentist. Your technical skills are more than up to scratch and you’ve kept in touch with developments in the industry. If there’s a new procedure available for your patients, you’re likely to know about it. You get on well with your practice manager and your staff seem more or less content. That’s all you need, right?

Wrong. Increasingly, dentists are being advised to sharpen up their emotional intelligence. This is becoming common in many industries, where bosses are being encouraged to train their staff in emotional intelligence in order to improve attributes in social and emotional awareness. In fact, there’s evidence that dentists who take the time to invest in empathy, communication and relationship building skills are less stressed, more in touch with their patients and staff, and enjoy the fruits of running more profitable practices. Many patients would agree that they prefer a Dentist that is known for being as friendly and relatable as they are for being a great dentist.

Rita Yong Gee works with Active Change For Life, a group of Brisbane-based psychologists who help professionals develop their emotional intelligence. She also knows a thing or two about dentistry. She started her working life as a dental assistant in the 1980s and with her partner, a dentist, is the owner of a busy dental practice.

“Dentists,” she says, “tend to focus on the clinical side of things but there’s lots that’s missing. Dentists are seeing people at their most vulnerable and that’s critical to remember.”

In addition, dentists are often stressed, something which can affect their staff and patients, as well as their own wellbeing.

This is where emotional intelligence comes into play. “It is an awareness and understanding of the interactions between your emotions and behaviours—and those of other people. People who have highly developed emotional intelligence can manage and adjust those key emotions and behaviours in certain situations.”

She gives as an example—the dentist who is running late to an appointment with a difficult patient. The patient is resistant to suggestions about a particular kind of treatment, and very indecisive. “Your behaviour,” Yong Gee says, “is what determines how the patient will react.” If a dentist expresses irritation or impatience, that will have an effect on the patient. They may opt out of treatment, and they may leave the practice altogether.

“There’s no question that there’s a direct correlation between having high emotional intelligence and practice success.” – Dr Michael Sernik, Prime Practice

Dr Michael Sernik agrees that dentists have a thing or two to learn about emotional intelligence. He is part of the management team of Prime Practice, an organisation that offers practice management courses to dentists. Prime Practice employs 10 psychologists and conducts workshops, web education and coaching sessions with dentists and practice managers to help develop emotional intelligence.

As a profession, dentists often exhibit a low Emotional Quotient Inventory, or EQ-i. They’ve got hard skills but not soft skills. Dr Sernik uses a clear metric to measure and monitor EQ-i through the training process and can calculate improvements over time and calibrate them against outcomes. “There’s no question that there’s a direct correlation between having high emotional intelligence and practice success,” he says.

Today, most dentistry is elective and dentists must explain the need for procedures to clients in some detail. “Everything depends on a dentist’s ability to convey to patient that there’s work to be done,” he says.

If it sounds like a sales pitch, clients will be uncomfortable. Dr Sernik advocates that dentists teach their clients about procedures and dental health. Rather than dentists “selling” their work, the dentist-patient relationship works when patients ask for treatment.

More competition in the dental industry adds an extra incentive for dentists to be good communicators, according to Dr Ramesh Sivabalan. And it doesn’t begin when the patient is in the chair. Dr Sivalaban is one of the founders of My Dental Team, a NSW practice where 14 dentists work. “Patient management,” he says, “is practice management.”

Effective communication and understanding the needs of patients requires front office staff and dental assistants to be on board—not just dentists. By the time patients are in the chair, they’ve already had two encounters with his practice—-the first time via the website or other advertising medium, the second over the phone when they’re making an appointment. If they’re not comfortable that they’re in safe hands before they reach the chair, the jobs of the dentist in connecting with that patient is just that much harder. “We can’t do much to change what’s happening in the chair—what we can do is change everything else.”

Dr Sivalaban’s approach to practice management involves building patient confidence at every point of contact, and promoting a brand identity around confidence and reliability.

Winning over children is often a big challenge for dentists, and according to Dr Sivalaban, it’s the key to business success. The branding at My Dental Team is built around kids going to the dentist. “If they’re doing all right, the perception is that adults will be okay,” he explains. “Parents bring kids in first and then book in an appointment for themselves afterwards. If kids are happy, parents are too.”

So how can the profession incorporate the insights of psychology? Dr Sivalaban would like to see better education around emotional intelligence and communication built into training programs for dentists. Dr Michael Sernik reports that Deans of faculties attend training sessions at Prime Practice, and “they say it’s wonderful”.

The problem is, young students are already carrying a heavy load as they acquire the hard skills. There isn’t a lot of room to fit development of the soft skills into dentistry curricula. And what’s more, some professional maturity might be required to grasp the complex dynamics between patients and dentists, according to Dr Sernik.

Dr Sandra Short, a dentist with practices in Sydney and Noosa, says that she developed her emotional intelligence on the job over a 20-year career. She prizes her ability to be able to pick up on emotions. She sees anger and fear in her patients, who are often anxious about trips to the dentist,nd has learned how to work with these emotions rather than against them. She’s undertaken courses to develop these skills but could have done with help much earlier. “It would have benefited me enormously,” says Dr Short.

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