Partnering in Health Part 4: Our Questions Shape the Conversation  

June 12, 2024 Mary Osborne RDH

By Mary Osborne, RDH  

The questions we ask on a health history form have more to do with disease history than health history, right? The focus is on disease right away. I like to shift that focus to health by saying, “I see that you’ve filled out this history and I’d like to talk to you about specifics, but I wonder if we can begin by you telling me a bit about your health in general? How healthy do you think you are?”  

I have found that if I start with health, I’m more likely to have a patient talk about health. If a patient says, “I think I’m pretty healthy,” I can ask, “What do you do to take care of yourself?” I can relate by acknowledging that I am trying to take better care of myself and how it isn’t always easy. Or I can pick up on something that is important to the patient, such as a concerted effort to get enough sleep or stick to healthier foods or to bicycle many miles a week. I can say, “Tell me more about that. It sounds like you feel better when you do that.”   

The questions you ask shape the conversation. And by the way, that does not just apply to reviewing a health history with new patients. It applies to every single interaction, with every single patient, with everyone on the team.   

When someone comes for their routine hygiene check, I might ask about their recent vacation or how their kids are doing, but I also always ask questions that open a conversation about health. Instead of starting with, “Have there been any changes in your health history since I last saw you?” I like to ask, “How has your health been since I last saw you?” Instead of asking, “Have there been any dental problems that you want us to pay attention to,” I ask, “What have you been noticing about your teeth recently? What are you noticing when you brush or when you floss?”  

We have to deal with disease. That’s a part of our job but moving toward health is more enriching. It’s positive.   

If you want to be seen as a partner in health, then moving the conversation in the direction of health is much more powerful than focusing on disease. The truth is everyone has a personal health story. There are things they are happy about and things they are sad about. When we take a little time to explore that story with questions, we and our patient gain insight into their experiences, attitudes, and feelings about their health. We and our patient get a better understanding of their motivations and the strategies they employ to become healthier. If we invite them to share their perspective with us, they will be more willing to hear our perspective, and we can extend an invitation: “Would you like to hear my perspective about that?”  

I recognize that inviting and engaging the patient in expanded conversations about their health may take a little more time, but it is effective time. Over the years, I noticed that when I thought I was being most efficient, I was generally being less effective. And in the long run, I ended up spending more time understanding what the problem was and trying to give more information without getting enough feedback to know if I was being heard or influencing the patient.   

One of my favorite things to hear from a patient is “You know, I never thought about that before.” I remember a woman who told me that she had been a smoker, but she had quit smoking. And I asked her how she did that. What prompted her? She said it was when her daughter was born that she realized that she didn’t want the smoke around her daughter. In her health review and preclinical conversation, she mentioned one of the things she did for exercise was tap dancing lessons, so I asked her how she got into that, and she said, “I figured I could spend time with my daughter, get exercise myself, and set a good example for my daughter. Wow, I guess my daughter is really a good influence on my health, isn’t she?” 

Those are the light bulb moments that light up my day.  

About Author

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Mary Osborne RDH

Mary is known internationally as a writer and speaker on patient care and communication. Her writing has been acclaimed in respected print and online publications. She is widely known at dental meetings in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker. Her passion for dentistry inspires individuals and groups to bring the best of themselves to their work, and to fully embrace the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.

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The Art of Influencing Our Patients Part 4: An Opportunity to Collaborate

June 23, 2023 Mary Osborne RDH

After practicing dental hygiene for more than twenty years, I went to work in the office of Dr. Doug Roth who was attending courses at The Pankey Institute. He had a copy of Dr. Bob Barkley’s book, Successful Preventive Dental Practices. Reading that book was a revelation for me. Although I never knew Bob Barkley, his work so resonated for me that I had the feeling he had read my thoughts about working with patients.

I had believed for some time that more was possible in dentistry. I had worked with good dentists and felt as though I took good care of my patients in the time I was allowed to spend with them. We were kind, thorough in our exams, and conscientious in treatment recommendations. Sometimes they took our recommendations, and sometimes they did not. I did not think there was much we could do to change that.

As a result of Bob Barkley’s book and the courses Doug was taking at the Pankey Institute, we incorporated a new model for bringing new patients into the office. Instead of moving patients quickly through an exam and treatment recommendations, we invested time and attention to get to know patients in a different way before we recommended significant treatment. I had no idea of the depth of connection we could have with patients, and the impact we could have on their health and well-being!

We spent “engaged” time with patients over a variety of appointments. We came to understand that the clinical tasks we had to accomplish were a small part of caring for patients. We began to see every interaction, with every patient, as an opportunity to get to know them and what was important to them to help them make healthy choices.

Over time we discovered with our patients:

  • The status of the dental health
  • The challenges of their current conditions
  • The implications of these conditions if nothing was done to intervene
  • Interventions they and we could do to change the trajectory of disease.
  • A possible preferred future of choice
  • Considerations involved in various treatment choices.

When we met patients where they were instead of where we thought they “should be” we found that some were ready sooner than others. We stopped giving patients solutions to problems they did not yet own. We came to understand that if we gave patients the time and attention they needed to own their existing conditions they were more curious about what Dr. Barkley called their “Probable Future” and more likely to pursue a “Possible Future.”

Without this spirit of collaboration and intentional patient development, we cannot do our best work.

Our influence develops throughout a process in which the patient is learning, in touch with their body, and engaged in thinking about the implications of the various aspects of their oral health. Because the conditions we discover today and our patient’s choices will impact their future health, we have a moral obligation to share what our experience tells us is likely to happen (the probable future) if they do nothing or if they choose a stop-gap treatment.

It is also our responsibility to help them see a preferred future that is possible for them when they are ready.

By engaging them in the exam process, creating opportunities for them to experience learning about their health, and welcoming them into collaboration, we enable them to partner with us in shaping their future. We must help them understand the implications of any choice they might make including its limitations, so they are fully informed to make true choices.

We have been trained to be efficient, and most dental clinicians have pride in their efficiency. But by prioritizing being “effective” over being efficient we make better use of our time and theirs. We experience an increase in trust, in our patient’s confidence in their decisions, and a more comprehensive view of treatment. Patients begin to see dentistry as a vehicle to create optimal health, function, and esthetics. Patients are more likely to keep their appointments, follow through on suggestions, and pay for our care with gratitude.

When we invest time in the early stages of our relationships, everything down the road flows more easily.

Related Course

E1: Aesthetic & Functional Treatment Planning

DATE: December 11 2025 @ 8:00 am - December 14 2025 @ 2:30 pm

Location: The Pankey Institute

CE HOURS: 39

Dentist Tuition: $ 6800

Single Occupancy with Ensuite Private Bath (Per Night): $ 345

Transform your experience of practicing dentistry, increase predictability, profitability and fulfillment. The Essentials Series is the Key, and Aesthetic and Functional Treatment Planning is where your journey begins.  Following a system of…

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About Author

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Mary Osborne RDH

Mary is known internationally as a writer and speaker on patient care and communication. Her writing has been acclaimed in respected print and online publications. She is widely known at dental meetings in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker. Her passion for dentistry inspires individuals and groups to bring the best of themselves to their work, and to fully embrace the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.

FIND A PANKEY DENTIST OR TECHNICIAN

I AM A
I AM INTERESTED IN

VIEW COURSE CALENDAR