6 ways to ethically persuade a reluctant patient to follow a treatment plan

By Dr. Christopher Phelps


Pressuring patients to accept treatment can backfire, unless you go about it ethically and positively.

As a dentist, you probably haven’t spent much time perfecting your persuasive speaking skills. After all, you’re a doctor, not a salesman. Your job is to provide treatments to people in need, not to convince someone to buy something they don’t need.

To some extent you’re right … but I want to clarify some definitions for you so we’re all talking about the same thing.

Convincing someone to buy something or say “yes” to something they don’t need is called coercion, intimidation or hierarchal authority. When we talk about persuasion and influencing more people to agree to your treatment recommendations, we’re talking about something completely different.

When you understand that there is an ethical way to set the stage for more patients to follow your treatment recommendations, you’ll not only be giving them the best possible service, but also making it a win-win scenario for you both which will build a long, lasting relationship.

When I talk about persuasion, I mean it as an ethical way to encourage your patients to make appointments, get cleanings, refer more people to your practice and follow the dental treatment plan they need. I studied under the authority in this field, Dr. Robert Cialdini, and worked for years on how to use the six principles of ethical persuasion in my own office.

Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion are:


People are more likely to say “yes” to your request when you first give them a small, unexpected, meaningful gift. So, for instance, at an event where you’re trying to attract new patients, you might hand out gift bags with a toothbrush, tube of toothpaste and some floss. Sure, this initial gift might be expected. However, before someone walks away, ask, “Would you like an extra toothbrush for someone else in your family?” Suddenly, you’ve given that person an unexpected gift targeted to their needs. They’re more likely to book an appointment, because now they feel a sense of obligation to reciprocate.


It’s a hard-wired part of human nature. When there’s less of something, we want it more. Scarcity is all about information that tells us when something we may want or like is genuinely about to go away. So, if you only have four appointment slots available on a given day, you could fill those last remaining spots faster by letting your patients know it. For instance, you could tell the patient, “Right now, we have four appointment slots left … but they fill up quickly.” If there’s a chance an appointment won’t be available later on, your patients are more likely to book one right away. If the scarcity of appointments is true and honest, why not use that power of influence and share that information with them?


People often look to credible experts to tell them what they should do. It comes from having other items present you as “the authority.” Dr. Cialdini points out that simply having a copy of your diploma displayed where a new patient is meeting you for the first time, along with any other certificates from dental academies or continuing education events you attended, can make them more likely to take your advice on things like tooth care or treatment plans.


Wishy-washy, flip-flopper and liar. These are names we use for people who don’t follow through with what they said they would do. Are these good names you want others to associate you with? As a result, people like to be morally consistent. If they make a commitment towards something, they are highly likely to follow through with it. For instance, many medical offices have reduced the number of people who don’t show up for their appointments by having their patients fill out their own appointment cards. Small commitment? Yes. But because they wrote it down themselves, they are now more likely to show up for this appointment.


People are more likely to follow your advice if they like you. Don’t be the dentist who shuns small talk and runs out of the room. Compliment your patients, share personal trivia and ask about their families before you get down to the business of what’s going on in their mouths. Beware: If you have an abrasive personality in the office, many of your patients may not be scheduling their treatment because of it.


People are more likely to make a decision if they know, or know about, other people who’ve made the same decision. So, for instance, it can be helpful to let a patient know that, “About 75 percent of people in your situation eventually opt for treatment X over treatment Y.” The key to ethical persuasion is to only use actual facts when you build consensus. Don’t lie about what other people do, but find evidence that supports the best treatment plan for your patient, and you’ll set the stage for more people to accept your recommendations.

Remember, it’s your job to take care of your patients. By using ethical persuasion, you can help them overcome their fears and accept the treatments that they need. If you’d like more information on how the use of ethical persuasion can improve your dental practice to decrease costly no-shows, get more patients to pay today, increase referrals and increase case acceptance for all of your treatment recommendations, then visit my Guide Them to Yes website.

Originally published in Dental Products Report, April 7, 2016



Dr. Christopher Phelps


Entrepreneur, author and practicing general dentist, Christopher Phelps, DMD, CMCT works with professionals across the country in identifying their marketing hurdles and showing them how to succeed and grow in an otherwise tough, competitive economy.


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