Schrödinger’s Dentist

Ben Waldman shows the fine line between selling dentistry and getting patients to accept life-changing treatment.

by Ben Waldman

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times from my dentist friends and clients: “I don’t sell dentistry,” or the more emphatic “I hate selling dentistry.”

Doctors, so this line of thinking goes, are demeaned by having to stoop so low as to have to “sell” treatment to a patient.

It seems that in the evolution of modern dentistry, the art and skill of selling is akin to the coccyx, a vestigial tail that hints of our simian, knuckle-dragging past.

Allow me to make the case that selling is not only an essential skill for a dentist, but that dentists who don’t know how or won’t engage in selling sleep and airway treatments are, in fact, harming their patients.

To illustrate the point, let’s stroll down memory lane to Physics 101.

You may remember that Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment in quantum mechanics in which a cat is placed in a sealed box with a radioactive substance that has a 50% chance of decaying and releasing poison. According to the principles of quantum mechanics, until the box is opened, and the cat’s fate is observed, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

But let’s imagine a similar scenario involving a dentist who is an accomplished clinician. This dentist has fantastic passion for their patients, has built a successful practice with thousands of patients, is an accomplished manager, has excellent communications skills, and loves to help afflicted patients choose their best treatment plan, but is simultaneously the same dentist who avoids “selling dentistry.” Let’s call this person Schrödinger’s dentist.

Schrödinger’s dentist is in a sealed box with a patient diagnosed with moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea. In this moment, Schrödinger’s dentist is simultaneously a skilled salesperson who knows exactly how to persuade the customer to accept treatment, and someone who doesn’t know the first thing about selling and is unable to convince the customer to move forward because they fear being called a ‘salesperson.’

This is, perhaps, where the parallel with Schrödinger’s cat experiment breaks down a bit because it’s not the fate of Schrödinger’s dentist that we are concerned with.

In this example, until the dentist makes or doesn’t make the sale, we can’t know the fate of the patient. Will they accept treatment and be healed or not choose treatment and have their condition deteriorate?

In this example of quantum entanglement, the fate of the patient rests with the selling skills of Schrödinger’s dentist.

So too does the health of your patients.

Sleep apnea is one of the few areas of dentistry that left untreated has an extraordinarily high mortality rate. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a grave condition that can lead to a range of health problems including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and stroke, even death. Early and continued intervention is highly responsive.

Sales is the penultimate step in the healing process.

The healing of patients is our calling as an industry. It is your calling as a clinician. You’re healing people and saving lives. But only if they let you.

You can read a patient’s chart, listen to their chief complaints, analyze their posture and anatomical symmetry. You can measure respiratory flow and volume using rhinomanometry and pharyngometry. You can measure minimum cross-sectional areas and inter-molar distances on a cone beam. You can prescribe sleep tests at home or in an overnight sleep facility. Armed with a diagnosis of Obstructive Sleep Apnea, you could recommend palatal expansion, myofunctional therapy, or even CPAP therapy.

But if you do not understand the rudiments of successful selling, you will not be able to allow the patient to accept the treatment that you know they so desperately need to heal and live their lives free of this terrible disease.

If the patient does not accept treatment, all your efforts and the efforts of your team and your colleagues will be for naught.

Ultimately, with too many of these treatment acceptance failures, you may become discouraged. Consciously or unconsciously, you may begin to shift your time and efforts away from treating sleep and airways and toward other “safer” areas of your practice.

Conversely, doctors who see the importance of selling and consider it an integral and valuable part of patient health, will spend time and resources gaining and maintaining selling skills so that they can increase the number of patients who will be seen, diagnosed, and healed by their practice.

It is far beyond the scope of this article to properly address the question of how a clinician can be a better salesman, but I think it’s important to address the subject of what selling is not.

Selling is not negotiation.

Selling is not manipulation.

Selling is not deception.

People who use these tactics to get you to do what they want are not selling, they are pushing.

If you don’t like “selling” because you don’t want to negotiate, manipulate, and deceive, then I don’t blame you. Neither would I.

Properly understood, selling is an act of mutual discovery of problems and solutions. In dentistry, the clinician is the chief detective, and the patient is often the scene of the crime.

While the rest of the dental office team is involved in the selling process, the primary players in this process are the patient and the doctor.

Especially in the Sleep Medicine world, the patients are coming to see you. They may like your team members and enjoy their company, but it is your expertise that has brought them to your chair.

It is you from whom they want to hear their symptoms.

It is you from whom they want to hear answers to their questions.

It is you by whom they want to be reassured.

It is you by whom they want to make and explain the treatment plan.

It is you who they are trusting to heal them.

This last step – the healing of patients – is our calling as an industry.

It is your calling as a clinician.

You’re healing people and saving lives.

But only if they let you.

Don’t let your fear of selling keep them from health!

Selling dentistry and recommending treatment can be confused by patients, so delivering information about sleep-breathing disorders in the right way for each patient is imperative. Read “Five foolproof ways to get a “yes” to more treatment plans” here:

Ben Waldman serves as a sales manager and lecturer for i-CAT and DEXIS. He has spoken to thousands of dentists around the world on clinical and commercial areas in dentistry but is a specialist in Sleep & Airway Disorders, how it’s diagnosed, treated, and reimbursed in the dental arena. Ben has been in dental imaging for over 20 years teaching dentists about both 2D and cone beam technology. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the American Academy of Physiological Medicine and Dentistry (AAPMD). Prior to his career in dentistry, Mr. Waldman served in the Reagan White House as Associate Director of Presidential Personnel and as the Associate Director of Office of Public Liaison. He and his wife Rebecca have four grown children and live in Northern Virginia with their neurotic dachshund.

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