Finding Out What Your Patients Really Want

Asking good questions opens the door to discovery. With careful and caring questions, two things occur: (1) you put the patient at ease by letting them know that you want to hear from them, you are sincerely interested in what they have to say, and you want to involve them in determining the appropriate treatment and (2) you gather essential information for effective case presentation.

In the discovery phase of the evaluation appointment, you want to find out what the patient has in mind. They may be crystal clear about what they want, or they may be quite vague. In either case, your questions and listening skills will help the patient clarify what they want and will give you insight as to their emotional hot button, or main motivator. Once you identify the main motivator, you will want to present to that motivator. This does not mean that you will not pay close attention to all aspects of treatment, but you will want to present to the motivator, remembering that the patient will make their buying decision based on whether or not they think you can meet their needs or accomplish the result they desire.


What are some opening questions that will pave the way for patients to give you pertinent information? My favorite initial interview question is the following:

“Mrs. Jones, what are your goals for your mouth, your teeth and your smile?”

This opening question is all encompassing. It asks the patient to give you insight as to what they want restoratively as well as cosmetically. If you pay close attention, you will gain all kinds of information about the patient’s attitude about their oral cavity: what it means to them, how willing they are to care for it, what immediate and long-term goals they have for their mouth and their smile. You may get some insight about the person’s personality as well.

If you ask a person this question at the beginning of your initial interview, and they are at a loss as to how to answer, let them know that is just fine.

Your conversation might go something like this:

Dr.: “Mrs. Jones, what are your goals for your mouth, your teeth, and your smile?”

Mrs. Jones: “I don’t know. I never thought about that. I’m not sure what you are asking of me.”

Dr.: “That’s fine. You think about that question while I am performing your evaluation today. Then, at the end of the evaluation, let’s come back to that question and see if you have anything you would like to share with me.”

Most of the time, if someone can’t answer that question initially, once you have completed a comprehensive oral evaluation, they have plenty of information for you. You will find that the patient begins telling you what they want. Be a good listener. Encourage them to give you as much information as possible. The more information you have, the better chance you have of identifying the motivational hot button.

Encourage a person to “go on,” to “continue” or to “give you more information” by passively listening. Make sure that your body language is attentive, your tone of voice reflects the patient and that you encourage them to continue by acknowledging them with such nonstimulating responses as “really,” “I see,” “please go on,” “tell me about that” and so on.

Once the person has given you as much information as possible, summarize what they want from you, and feed that back to them to make sure that you have all the information that you need and that you have heard them clearly and accurately. Then, ask them the following question:

“Tell me, Mrs. Jones, what are your expectations of me?”

You will be amazed. People will say things such as “I expect you to do a good job,” “I expect you to fix my smile” or “I expect you to do the best you can.”  Do you perceive the power of these two questions? The first question allows the patient to lead the way in discovering what kind of smile they want, the kind of picture they have in their mind’s eye, and the anxieties and/or the excitement that they may be feeling. You cannot push anyone into making a decision, but you can lead a person by asking questions and listening. The better you listen to your patients, the better they will listen to you when it comes time to make your presentation.

In addition, if you have listened carefully and present your recommendations in such a way that you are answering or addressing their own goals, you will be allowing them to give you the lead. This kind of responsiveness will take you to tremendous places with your relationship with your patients. The mutual respect that comes when a patient feels that they are listened to is amazing.

The second question empowers you. When the patients give you the kind of responses to which I previously alluded, they are empowering you to provide the very best care possible, to create the most beautiful smile and to develop the best treatment plan without compromise.


There are many opening or initial interview questions that will help you to gain insight into your patient’s perceived needs and wants. However, in my experience with dental practices throughout the country and the world, I have never learned of any better questions that will help you to gain clearer knowledge of your patients or to build a more open, relaxed, respectful relationship with patients.

But remember, no matter how beautifully you ask an initial interview question, the key to successful communication in this situation is your ability and your willingness to listen.