Practice Management |6 min read

Improving Oral Health in Your Community – Part 2

Real World Insights from AADOM Authors - Gabriela Solano

Learning Who Your Practice Serves, and Could Serve: Reach Out to Diverse Patient Populations and Welcome Them In

In my last article, I wrote that my husband (a dentist) and I came to the United States from Mexico. When we first arrived, he spent a few years working in group practices as an associate. I worked on my business and management education and worked in office administration positions. Then we decided to start our own business together, with him providing direct patient care and me managing the practice.

We learned that it can be hard to establish your target demographic, especially with a startup. You can think about who your ideal patient would be and start working on building your patient base that way. But in reality, patients will find the practice that best fits them and the practice that makes them feel at ease.

We tried targeting patients who looked like us, featuring brown-skinned native Spanish speakers in our advertising in hopes that we would attract Spanish-speaking patients. However, we were not prepared for the influx of minority communities that would be reaching out to us. Many of our patients of color do not speak Spanish; for example—they were looking for a welcoming environment.

But let’s say that you are not a business owner. Let’s say you are not a minority or that no one on your staff speaks a language other than English. We all start with the resources we have here and now. And we can all take steps to be inclusive.

When was the last time you evaluated how prepared your practice is to welcome patients from all walks of life? How aware are you of your community’s struggles within the healthcare system?

When considering why certain patients seek out specific healthcare providers, a few things come to mind that could influence who they choose. These include location, how your practice approaches treatment planning, and the sensitivity with which you and your staff treat people who are different from you.

Where are you located?

Think about the community or communities where your practice is located. Who lives and works nearby? Are these patients coming to your office for preventive care or urgent treatment? Many communities experience demographic change over time. Does your patient mix reflect the community’s current makeup regarding age, ethnicity, and so on?

How do you discuss treatment plan options?

Consider the typical treatment plan for the most common oral health issues patients bring to your practice. Is it always the most assertive treatment, 100% guaranteed to fix the problem, or are patients offered the less-invasive techniques first? Do providers present options to patients whenever possible?

Discussing options is important because Native American, African American, and Hispanic patients have historically been subject to mistreatment and neglect from healthcare providers. There have been unethical experimentation and abuse cases, such as using enslaved African Americans for dental experiments without anesthesia. Harm to these communities caused by medical and dental providers didn’t end when slavery did—it continues in different forms today.

Because of historical trauma, many patients of color live with deep mistrust and fear of dental care, which results in their avoiding or delaying dental care and becoming trapped in a cycle of poor oral health. If your practice’s providers and team members focus on building trust before starting treatment, patients are more likely to return—and they may recommend you to others for preventive care.

Another benefit to discussing options is that it allows you to address financial concerns. Language minority patients and people of color are more likely to be uninsured or underinsured. They may have lower-paying jobs that do not offer paid time off from work to get dental care. If their treatments are spaced out over time, it can give them more breathing room to settle and shorten recovery times. Consider offering extended hours to accommodate different work schedules.

How Self-Aware Are You?

As noted above, some people live in “food deserts” or cannot afford to eat high-quality, whole foods. And they may delay dental treatment out of fear, leading to poor oral health. If you can imagine yourself in these situations, you will be less likely to judge patients who present with severe decay or other problems.

It may surprise you that our practice also sees many LGBTQ patients of all ethnicities. Patients may face discrimination from dental providers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Discrimination can affect LGBTQ patients indirectly (e.g., it can affect their ability to maintain employment). Moral prejudice can also directly affect how they are treated in the dental office, resulting in patients refusing treatment. One step to be more welcoming is to look at your intake forms and update them to ensure they are gender inclusive.

Providing excellent patient customer service is a critical aspect of any dental office. The unique challenges patients from marginalized communities go through can often affect interactions and cause some patients not to trust their dental team, therefore risking their oral health. We, as dental care providers, must serve our patients to the best of our abilities and improve their oral health outcomes, reduce health disparities, and build trust and loyalty by actively working toward providing our patients with customer service that will allow them to feel seen and welcome.

Practice Active Listening

I urge all office managers to advocate a patient-centered practice. Create and implement processes that empower you to focus on getting to know your patient. Listen with an open mind to what they say—words and non-verbal communication.

Practice active listening. Ask questions about patients’ concerns, preferences, and oral health goals. Allowing your team the time to get to know your patients will provide you with the foundation to effectively address their main concern and provide patients with a caring environment. Once the chief complaint or ultimate goal has been identified, ensure the message is transferred to the whole team to address it adequately.

What might be true for my community can be very different from yours. Think about your community in particular. Are there any specific groups that have been marginalized or underserved? How can you provide a solution for them? Think about those patients who came in once and didn’t return to your office—can you pinpoint what made them go elsewhere? Patients leave practices for many reasons, but if you’re noticing a pattern of people not returning or not coming at all, it might be time to examine how welcoming your practice is specifically to that demographic.

Coming up: What we do in our office to ensure all patients feel welcome and cared for.

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About the Author

Headshot of Gabriela Solano

Gabriela Solano, originally from Mexico, has made Northern California her new home. With a strong passion for dental office management, Gabriela combines her expertise in the field with her dedication to advocating for immigrants’ and minorities’ rights.

Gabriela and her husband proudly own and operate a thriving dental practice. Their unwavering commitment is to foster a welcoming patient environment and deliver exceptional dental care. Through their clinic, they strive to create a sense of belonging and provide top-notch oral health services to their valued patients.

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