The Language of Healthcare

Patients and clinicians are often divided by what seems like a foreign language. Here are four keys that lead to real connection with patients.


In this day and age, both are capable of truly amazing things. Yet, on so many levels it’s difficult for them to connect (treatment, prevention, insurance, etc). At the end of the day, every single one of us are patients: our family, our friends… ourselves. So why does it seem like healthcare speaks a different language? Why is it so difficult to get a handle on something that matters so much?

GSW took on this very issue and created some funny, but eye opening experiments to discover why healthcare doesn’t “speak people” Check out two of their experiments:

What if a coffee company communicated the way doctors speak?

What if a florist spoke the language of healthcare?

It’s clear that there’s a communication problem. Here are four principles to help any dental practices break down the barriers and learn how to “speak people.”

1. It Begins at The New Patient Appointment

The Institute for Healthcare Communication says, “A clinician may conduct as many as 150,000 patient interviews during a typical career. If viewed as a healthcare procedure, the patient interview is the most commonly used procedure that the clinician will employ.”

That statement right there could easily be the most revolutionary concept in healthcare for the next few decades. The patient interview is the most common “procedure.” Yet, many times it’s the least prepared for “procedure.”

The IHC’s report goes on to say:

“Extensive research has shown that no matter how knowledgeable a clinician might be, if he or she is not able to open good communication with the patient, he or she may be of no help.”

So the language barrier begins at the very first meeting.

How many times have you gone to an initial appointment only to walk away feeling like you didn’t have the time to adequately explain everything? Or maybe you felt like you weren’t asked the right questions. Or maybe you thought the clinician made a diagnostic decision too quickly without fully listening to you.

The new patient appointment is our best chance at opening good communication with patients.

2. Minimize Interuptions

Most diagnostic decisions come from the history taking component of the interview. Yet, studies of clinician-patient visits reveal that patients are often not provided the opportunity or time to tell their story/history, often due to interruptions, which compromise diagnostic accuracy. Incomplete stories/history leads to incomplete data upon which clinical decisions are made.
-Contributions of the history, physical examination, and laboratory investigation in making medical diagnoses.

When interruptions happen, patients feel what they are saying is not important and become hesitant to offer additional information. Interruptions are a deterrent to collecting essential information and hinders the relationship from the start.

Morgan Gleason was diagnosed with a systemic autoimmune disease called Juvenile Dermatomyositis (JDM) at the age of eleven. She’s been in and out of hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics more than most of us can even imagine. She writes about her frustrations (and recommendations) for the healthcare world at her blog. Here’s a video voicing her perspective on effective physician-patient communication:

3. Solutions are a Result of Conversations

If healthcare is going to speak a new language, solutions must be reached through effective conversations. Patient interactions must to move from:






Much of this is what I call “professional conversation.” Meaning, I have to do this every day. I take a complicated subject like marketing and try to make it simple, actionable and fun for those I’m working with. I can’t take the approach of, “I’m the expert. Just listen and trust me.” When you work in a complex industry, part of your job is to create conversations. From those conversations come effective solutions.

One other thing: a very well known, yet interesting JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) study titled Relationship with Malpractice Claims Among Primary Care Physicians and Surgeons (Levinson, Roter, Mullooly, Dull & Frankel; JAMA 1997 Feb 19;277(7):553–9). found no correlation between a physician’s level of competance and the number of lawsuits filed against him or her. In fact, physicians who were sued significantly less talked to their patients on average three minutes more and engaged them with questions.

I’ll sum up the entire study for you in one sentence: Talk to your patients more and get sued less.

Easy. It all comes down to communication.

4. Speaking Goes Beyond Words

It’s simple: “I go to a doctor to feel better.”

I think we loose site of that sometimes. Try it. Fill in the blank:

“I go to my dentist to ____________________.”

I had a client recently say, “Our patients come to us to be inspired.” Or maybe they look forward to their visit with you because it’s a chance to relax, take a break, and breathe. It’s the first time all week where they have prioritized themselves.

There’s the words we use to communicate and then there’s the space between those words. That’s where we need to connect with patients. In the space between the words.

What do patients feel? What do they sense? What emotions do they associate with an appointment?

I’ve been to several doctor’s offices. After a while, I’ve come up with several questions:

Why do you always have to fill out 15 forms, all of which ask for your name, date of birth and social security number, as if it’s a test of memory? Am I the only one who gets frustrated with this in our auto-fill age?

Why are they lopsided, greying photocopies, copied from an original long, long ago?

Why is every office so grey? Surely, the place where they picked the paint and bought the chairs had other colors.

Why does the television in the corner repeat all the diseases I could possibly have, instead of showing me exciting recipes I could make that night for dinner?

Why don’t they give me something to do while I wait, instead of sitting there worrying that I’ve got the extremely rare thing on the poster I’m looking at?

Why do the receptionists sit behind frosted glass windows and slam them shut like prison guards?

Why are they trying so hard to not connect with me?

Watch this video from Dayton Children’s Hospital. There’s communicating that they’re a hospital and then there’s communicating that they know how to care for children.

So…. Where do we speak people? Where do we speak dental?

How can we prioritize the new patient appointment?

How can we minimize interruptions?

How can we make sure we’re connecting with patients through conversation?

How can we “speak” between the words?

Spend some time with your team working through these questions. The answers may help you learn how to “speak people” better.

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The dental practice landscape is changing at an ever faster rate. Protect your investment by putting together a strategic marketing plan customized to you. Schedule your consultation with me.

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