In the intricate dance between clinicians and patients, there exists a critical juncture: the moment when a patient raises a difficult question. Most clinicians hate hearing these questions, as it appears to be an attack on the treatment plan, and thereby their own diagnosing abilities. After all, clinicians are trained to find problems and we see the best route to fix them.

So, when a patient questions the treatment plan – the fix to the problem – it can be frustrating. Too often patient’s questions are met with frustration or brushed aside, hindering the pathway to optimal care. Too often clinicians fail to see the problems and obstacles behind the diagnosis that must be solved or addressed before treatment can move forward.

Picture this: a patient sits before you, eyes reflecting a mix of apprehension and curiosity. They muster the courage to voice a question, perhaps one that challenges the proposed treatment plan or delves into the murky waters of cost. How do you respond? Do you see it as an obstacle to be overcome or an opportunity to deepen your understanding of their needs?

In medical training, we spend the majority of our time on diagnosing and treating ailments, while the art of engaging with patient queries is often overlooked. Yet, these questions serve as signposts, indicating areas where clarity is needed or fears lie dormant. 

Questions or Objections?

So, why do patients hesitate? Why do they raise objections or pose difficult questions? The answers are as varied as the individuals themselves. Financial concerns may loom large, but beneath the surface lie deeper anxieties and unspoken worries. It’s not just about the cost; it’s about failing to understand the value, the necessity, and the implications of the proposed treatment.

Among the hard questions that patients ask, the root of the questions often deals with topics such as:

  • Cost
  • Lack of understanding about the need for the treatment and implications of failing to address treatment
  • Fear of commitment
  • Lack of trust that the clinician has their best interest at heart
  • Anxiety over treatment

As clinicians, it’s imperative to embrace these moments of inquiry with open arms. Instead of viewing them as hurdles, see them as invitations to delve deeper into the patient’s world. Ask yourself: What lies at the heart of this question? Is it fear, uncertainty, or a genuine desire to comprehend?

Understand Your Patients

In my experience, I found the simple key is to understand your patients. Ideally, you come to understand your patients before these questions arise; understand their needs, their wants, and why they are seeking your services in the first place. This requires time, effort, and the right processes and systems set up when engaging with patients.

But what happens when these questions arise right after your present treatment? The first thing you need to do is step back, take a breath, and realize that the questions are not roadblocks; they’re invitations to better understand your patients. By responding with empathy and curiosity, clinicians can foster an environment where dialogue flourishes, and trust blossoms.

The next step is to respond with questions in return. Instead of offering rote responses, engage the patient in a dialogue. Probe gently, inquire earnestly, and seek to uncover the root of their concerns. Questions like “Tell me more,” “What do you think,” or “How does that make you feel” can open doors to deeper understanding and mutual respect.

Remember, that patient walked into your office, which means they do care about their health. In addition, they responded, which is much better than never engaging at all. It’s not about coercion; it’s about collaboration. By inviting patients into the decision-making process and tailoring treatment plans to align with their goals and priorities, clinicians can foster a sense of agency and partnership.

So what are the common questions that we as clinicians hate hearing?

Well in my dental office, here are some common ones:

  • Why didn’t my last dentist tell me about this?
  • What do you think I need?
  • You must need a new car?
  • Why is dentistry so expensive?
  • Why are dental crowns so expensive?
  • I don’t think I do this you?
  • This is my first toothache, can’t you just call in a prescription?
  • Why do you have to do x-rays?
  • You did x-rays last time, why again?
  • Do you know a cosmetic dentist in your area?
  • Can’t you just put me to sleep?
  • Why do I need to do any of this?
  • Why can’t you do the no-prep veneers?
  • Can you finish this before…?

At first glance, many of these questions seem snarky and insincere – or simple excuses to say no. Many clinicians don’t know how to respond to questions or objections of cost, which can be legitimate in the lives of your patients. I have found success in my office by reframing the question to focus on their health. If you have a compelling x-ray, show them to the patients and highlight the areas of concern. Ask them what they see; ask them how they would proceed. Then I often ask this question:

Besides money, is there anything else keeping you from [treatment pan]? What else are you concerned about?

Financial concerns can be legitimate. Often patients may be strapped for cash – perhaps they just sent their child to college or were hit with unexpected car expenses. In these cases, it is important to talk to patients, and present options to address the issue in the future. 

However, many patients don’t understand the gravity of the issue. Their health might be important to them, but if the issue doesn’t appear life-threatening or they don’t actively feel pain and discomfort, it is easier to prioritize other things. 

In both cases, it is important to have options available for patients – specifically payment plans and financial assistance. Be ready to reframe the cost of the treatment in various ways, for example, for the price of a cup of coffee a day we can solve this issue.

Moreover, it’s crucial to recognize that patient objections are not monolithic; they’re as diverse as the individuals themselves. While financial concerns may loom large for some, others may harbor fears related to pain, time commitments, or perceived invasiveness. By understanding the multifaceted nature of patient objections, clinicians can tailor their approach accordingly and offer tailored solutions.

Importance of the New Patient Processes

In the pursuit of comprehensive care, it’s essential to move beyond the confines of a 30-second exam; your new patient processes should be as comprehensive as possible.  Take the time to get to know your new patients, ask questions, and listen to their wants and goals. Try to understand why they contacted you, and why are they coming in.

Get the patient to articulate their goals – do they just want a cleaning or do they want to keep their teeth for the rest of their life? The new patient experience is not restrictive to the first visit; you can do the comprehensive exam throughout the next few visits.

There are many ways to approach new patients, but I have found there are golden questions that have immensely helped our practice. If you are interested to learn the 10+ questions you need to ask a new patient, and the 20+ common questions dentists receive during treatment presentations, visit 

In conclusion, the ability to navigate difficult questions with grace and empathy is a hallmark of exemplary patient care. By embracing these moments as opportunities for deeper understanding and collaboration, clinicians can forge stronger bonds with their patients and pave the way for optimal health outcomes. So, the next time a patient poses a challenging question, see it not as a personal attack but as a stepping stone on the path to enlightenment.

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