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MyView: Talk with me - Communication is a two-way street

March 05, 2012

By Kenneth D. Jones Jr., D.D.S., J.D.

Communication: (n) a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

It’s sometimes amazing how things happen in multiples. We’ve all had two or three patients die or move, all within a month or so. The group of dentists that used to meet for lunch finally reconvened, and suddenly we’re all retired and talking about our health problems. Last year, I and a half-dozen of my friends from across the country ended up in surgery, all in the space of a few weeks.

As we talked following treatment, we found that we all had stories from those illnesses that sounded familiar, and, surprisingly, we all had similar stories of patients who had contacted us who were unhappy with the way they were being treated as well. Communication (or the lack thereof) was the critical problem for all of us. It so often is, you know.

In my case, I just wanted to know why my meds were changed in the middle of the night. The one I had been on had been great, but then someone changed it to one that zonked me out and made me practically comatose. So, it was changed back to the one that did the job without side effects. But late one night, there was the troublesome medication once again. I asked, "Why the change?"

When no one could tell me, I asked to speak with the doc-on-call. When he finally showed up, he proceeded to tell me that I was not his patient and he didn’t need to read my chart or to give me a reason for the medication change. At that point, I lost my temper, gave him some rather vocal advice and told him to get out. That was the same night they told me Tylenol wasn’t ordered for my headache, so I needed to take Percocet instead. You can guess my reaction to that one.

The dental stories my friends related were at least as troublesome. One woman, whose lifetime dentist retired, started as a new patient in an office that prides itself on perio-scaling, crown and bridge, implants and upscale esthetic dentistry. It’s also an office that follows a well-known dental consultant’s guide to increasing financial success (as opposed to the primary purpose of increasing patient health). This patient didn’t have much money but she did have dental insurance. And she did have questions that were never answered except to say, "That’s what Doctor says you need."

Since she had no decay and good oral hygiene, she wasn’t sure why she needed to return every three months, and she wasn’t sure why the fillings she had that were done as a young woman needed to be replaced with crowns. She didn’t understand why the dentist’s treatment salesperson decided she could stretch the treatment out to take advantage of her insurance. If it was that needed, should it wait for over six years? She also wasn’t sure why the dentist got so upset when she asked for a second opinion, preferably from a dentist in another office. And, finally, she was upset that the dentist would charge her to make a two-page copy of her dental record and wouldn’t give her duplicate X-rays.

In the second office, she actually talked with the new dentist. She said that he first asked her what concerned her about her oral conditions. She wasn’t charged much for the needed films. She learned what needed to be done (nothing) and what she might want done. She said that in about two minutes, she knew he cared about her as a person and not as a source of funding for a vacation home and a new car. She decided that this was the office for her. She wanted my friend to tell her how she should deal with the first dentist.

I advised them that she should let her former dentist know how she felt. I told her to tell the dentist the same thing I told the doc-on-call who ticked me off so strongly and so loudly that night, and the advice I’ve told you folks before: Doctors Don’t Have Patients; Patients Have Doctors. And the sooner we can get that through our heads, the better doctors we will be.

Communication is a two-way street. The operative word in this editorial’s title, "Talk With Me," is the word "With." It doesn’t say "Talk to me" or "Talk at me." It doesn’t care that you feel that you’re too busy or important to think about my questions and issues or even to talk with me in person.

It does say, "Listen to me and I’ll listen to you." It says, "I know the questions I have and I’d like answers that make me believe that you care. If you have questions, I’ll try to answer them as best I can. I’ll get better faster and stay healthier longer if you take the time to help me understand what’s going on." Sometimes it says, "I’ve tried not to bother you, but no one else has the answers."

It really says, "Communicate with me. We’ll both be better off when we do."

Dr. Jones writes a monthly column for the Ohio Dental Association. A recently retired private practice dentist and attorney in Mansfield, Ohio, he may be reached at jonesddsjd@aol.com.