The Proverb That Sums Up Patient Responsibility

Talk about leading a horse to water, I’m sure you feel like that with your patients sometimes.  It’s actually a very fitting proverb. 

You tell them, you show them, you do everything you can to get them to understand and see the importance of what you are advising them to do and still, perhaps all too often, they just won’t budge – you can’t make them drink.

I’ve even heard from teams and doctors that they even say something to the patients to the effect of…

“I’m going to tell you everything and then it’s up to you to decide.  You can do some or all or nothing it’s just my job to educate you on what is going on with your mouth.”

That’s where you lose them.  You see, your indifference too early in the process is letting them off the hook and making it okay to say “no,” to do nothing.  That’s exactly what the patient is hoping for, at least subconsciously.  They are hoping someone will tell them it’s fine to say no, that it’s all optional, that they have permission to carry on just as they are.

This is what it all comes down to. 

Does the patient take responsibility for their health?  Do they take responsibility for their mouths and the problems in it?  Do they take responsibility for their future and the decisions that they will make today?

Learning to hold your patients accountable for their decisions is one of the most advanced strategies you can ever learn.  It has to do with tough love and standing your ground when necessary.

More than that though, it has to do with you believing enough in what you are suggesting and caring enough about your patients, personally, to remain firm on your encouragement to move forward and the reasons why.

Not to over-do the analogy but when it comes to getting the patients to drink the water, you’ve got three very easy tactics to employ.

First, the thirstier you can make them before you bring the water, the better.

This is the equivalent of pouring a little salt on the wounds, or perhaps a little salt on the tongue.  This is about showing them all of their problems and giving them a few laps around the pasture so they work up an appetite for some solutions instead of just rushing through it and checking things off a list.

Yes, it’s true, sometimes you have to do the dance and get the patient ready to receive the diagnosis, the treatment discussion, and the decision about their health.

Second, the good old fashion sugar in the water by giving them a little taste so they know what they’d be missing and make them wanting more, for their own benefit and best interest.

This is about making it personal, making it mean something, making it compelling, and making it exciting to them.  Instead of just letting them sit there staring at it and you leaving it up to their own conclusion, you can give them a little (or a big) nudge forward by showing them just how good it’s going to be.  This is my concept of possibility-based dentistry. 

Third, since they aren’t a horse, you get to actually communicate the advantages and disadvantages (as we always say the benefits and consequences) of moving forward on their health or not – either way, it is ultimately their responsibility.

They have a decision to make; choose to either continue with worsening problems that will only be more expensive in the future or choose to regain their health at the earliest possible point.

All of this really is about one thing… making it personal and less clinical.  If you engage the patient not about their teeth or their jaw (or whatever you are dealing with), and you back it out to their whole mouth, whole body, whole health, whole life in order to make it about the human – you meet them where they already are (mentally) and discuss aspects of their lives they already care about. 

That’s how you establish rapport and build trust.  That’s how you show patients you understand them and care about them.

I do believe in the saying that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  It’s completely true.  It’s important to show them you care about them as a person – not just a patient with a chart.  This should be the culture of your practice and embodied by every team member. 

If your patients experience your person-first philosophy, they’ll know you won’t allow them to remain unhealthy, because they know you truly care.

With the relationship established, it’s must easier to remind them that they must take ownership over their mouths, health, and lives because they got but one of each.  No one is going to take care of it other than them.  You are here to help them, but they first have to help themselves, and as it should be, because it’s theirs after all.

That’s the patient’s responsibility.  They have made a very smart move by being there with you – but that’s not enough – that is not success.  It’s only half the battle to get the horse to water, now it’s time to drink up. 

We’ll pick up here next week with some strategies for those extra stubborn patients.

Stay tuned.

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