If looks could kill, would your appearance be DOA?

2009 06 04 14 09 47 485 Drb How To Bug

Is it possible to completely destroy your rapport with a new patient within the first 30 seconds of meeting them?

The answer is an unequivocal "yes."

“Only 7% of our message is communicated by words.”

According to Richard Mulvey, author of You've Only Got Four Minutes, 90% of an individual's opinion of you is formulated in the first four minutes of meeting. Although I would like to think that sharing my professional education, training, and 20-plus years of experience in the field of dentistry would impress anyone who walks into my operatory, quite the opposite is true. If I fail to earn the patient's trust and confidence in the first few minutes, I am truly "dead on arrival" when it comes to caring for that patient's dental health.

Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D., at the University of California, Los Angeles has researched how we communicate with others, and in his book, Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, he reveals that only 7% of our message is communicated by words. The majority is communicated through intonation and facial expression. So that wall covered with all my framed accolades and diploma does not amount to a hill of beans if I can't earn the patient's confidence and communicate myself as a professional, caring, and competent healthcare provider.

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be just competent. I want to be outstanding. I want my patients to feel like they received superior care from an empathetic and highly skilled clinician. So if 90% of a patient's opinion of me is formulated in the first four minutes, and the words I say account for only 7% of my message, what's left?

Mehrabian also notes that the tone of my voice counts for 38%. Through the use of tone, pitch, resonance, articulation, tempo, volume, and rhythm, we often unintentionally betray our moods and attitudes, even the ones we would prefer our patients were not aware of. So when we're having a bad day, we can really set ourselves up for a failure in patient rapport just by the tone of voice we use when introducing ourselves.

Smile, smile, smile

Here's another tidbit from Mehrabian to consider: 55% of a message comes from facial movements. This makes smiling one of the most effective tools we have for establishing patient rapport and creating a good impression from the get-go. In 2005, researchers found that patients preferred doctors to wear semiformal conservative attire, reflecting a change in the perception of the traditional white coat (BMJ, December 24, 2005, Vol. 331:7531, pp. 1524-1527). Another significant finding of this study, however, was the difference a smile made in a patient's preference in the doctor.

So ham it up and practice smiling at yourself in the mirror, then make eye contact and flash those pearly whites every time you greet your patients. You might be surprised to find that your stock value with that patient doubles -- along with their trust in you -- making your clinical job so much easier.

Even with changing styles and the general acceptance of a more casual look, how we dress and present ourselves remains important in determining the success of the patient-clinician relationship. If you want to advance your career, then look and act like a professional. This will set you apart from co-workers or other interviewees who are more interested in expressing their style than making a good first impression. Leave the facial piercings, wild hair color, heavy makeup, artificial nails, tattoos, and open-toed shoes at home. They lend no credibility to you as a professional healthcare provider.

The bottom line is this: At the first meeting with a new patient or potential employer, we need to present ourselves as caring, competent, courteous, confident, and clean professionals. First impressions can be nearly impossible to reverse or undo. If you cannot win your patient's trust and confidence in the first four minutes, you might as well tag your toe "DOA" and head on down to the morgue.

Rhonda Jones, R.D.H., B.S., is a teacher, speaker, and dental hygienist in Canton, GA.

Copyright © 2009 DrBicuspid.com

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