The following article is taken from a CE webinar from Dr. Mark Hyman. View the free CE webinar below:


A great misconception people have about success in business – and success in general – is that you never make a mistake. This is absolutely not true. With 32 years in private practice, I can confidently say I made every mistake in the book. The true key to success and growth is to not make the same mistake twice. Learn from your mistakes and make changes to your approach. If you don’t learn from a mistake, it becomes a failure.

To reflect on a few of my professional mistakes, I had a patient who was a hockey player. He crushed two of his front teeth and they needed to be extracted. I discussed some treatment options with him and we elected to replace them with implants. It seemed simple enough so I did not meet with the Oral Surgeon. When the patient came back from the procedure, the implants were placed were where the bone was, too high up in the vestibule.  It was an aesthetic nightmare- something I didn’t anticipate. The oral surgeon didn’t contact me when he placed them so it was easy at that moment to start pointing fingers – the specialist made an error. But I was in charge of that patient and that case – I was the quarterback calling the plays. I didn’t meet and communicate with the oral surgeon to ensure everything was in place. I learned the important lesson that with complex cases you need to meet with a specialist. In fact, it is important to assign someone from your team to handle these cases from start to finish. They are in charge of making sure everyone – patient, team, specialists – are all on the same page. 

In regards to miscommunication, I remember another case I had with a senior citizen who fell and knocked out four teeth. We went through all of the treatment options but due to finances none of those options fit. We found a solution that addressed all of the patient’s wants and needs that fit within his budget. However, when the patient’s family learned about the procedure, they came back irate, concerned about the longevity of the solution. I communicated clearly – the patient has a $15,000 problem, I am suggesting a $1,500 solution that allows him to continue his social life at the senior center. This want was something that I discovered the patient was dearly missing due to the embarrassment of his smile. When we reflected back on this misunderstanding, the treatment was the correct one, and the patient was onboard, but we did not clearly communicate and address the expectations with all of the stakeholders.

Miscommunication: The Root of Mistakes

These two cases highlight a major lesson; 95% of mistakes are rooted in miscommunication. Lack of crystal clear communication between yourself, your team and the patient. As a practice, you need to become an expert at communicating. Communicating with your team in meetings and team chat technology, your patients, and really understanding your patients wants and needs. The worst thing in the world is to finish a great case, where you feel you knocked it out of the park, but then the patient is unhappy. 

Miscommunication is almost always at the root of mistakes, so you need to put in processes that allow you to communicate effectively. You need to teach your team communication skills so that you can identify potential problems before they occur. Remember, to have an innovative team, you need innovative solutions. You need to utilize communication technology and automation to simplify tasks for your team, appointment reminders, payments collection, insurance verification and so on, so your team can spend more time face-to-face with patients engaging and communicating with them. 

I have found that asking the right questions during patient discovery helps eliminate many potential mistakes. I use the following 10 questions during new patient discovery and consistently during the treatment process:

  1. Did you have any trouble finding the office?
  2. Who can we thank for referring you to me?
  3. How can I help you? Tell me more.
  4. How does that make you feel?
  5. What did your last dentist tell you?
  6. Why now? Why did you come in today vs…etc
  7. What are your long-term goals for your health, teeth, and smile?
  8. Who else has input in this?
  9. Do you have a budget?
  10. How soon would you like to be finished?

Dive into these questions. Let the patient’s answers inspire more questions. Dig deeper. When used correctly, these questions help you discover what the patient wants, what are their true needs, their expectations and their fears. Try to ask all of the questions. You never know which one is the winning question, the question which inspires an answer that prevents you from running into problems. In the end, it is always better to ask questions than make assumptions, because assumptions set up for miscommunications and future cases that will haunt you.

Patients are unhappy when their expectations are not met – be it aesthetic results, financial commitments or other. You need to consistently seek to understand their expectations using targeted questions, and when appropriate, help patients adjust those expectations when they are out of line. Do this properly and you will be able to exceed their expectations with not only results, but outstanding patient engagement.

If you discover that you cannot meet a patient’s expectation – either the results they want are beyond your skillset or they are unwilling to adjust their expectations – then you have discovered a patient that is best left to find another dentist. Don’t set yourself up for failure by accepting a case that will eventually haunt you.

After Dropping the Ball

You can try to avoid mistakes, but it is important to know what to do immediately after making or realizing a mistake. First of all, stop immediately and inform the patient. No excuses, no justifications. Communicate clearly and openly with the patient. Present options to remedy the situation and if it is your mistake, own the fix – even if that means financially compensating it.

Document your mistakes and develop processes to avoid making the same mistake in the future. Learn from them. Most importantly, never try to hide a mistake and deceive the patient. The patient has put trust in you, and if you want to keep that patient you need to show them they can trust you, even when mistakes happen. If you cut corners, if you don’t own up to mistakes, when you see the patient again (or cases like them), those truly are the ones that will haunt you.

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