Along with clinical skills, communication skills are important in order to be a successful and caring dentist. They become even more crucial when you are treating a patient who has special communication needs. Communicating with deaf patients or people who are hard-of-hearing is often difficult at first, but a few key strategies can make visits enjoyable and effective for both you and your patient.
When a patient who is hard-of-hearing books an appointment, depending on how deaf the patient is, ask at that time if they would like to have a sign language interpreter be present. Inviting a sign language interpreter who is well-versed in dental terminology, rather than your patient's family member or friend, may provide the best means of communicating with deaf patients. However, what is most important to a productive appointment is your patient's comfort, whether they prefer to carry on by themselves or have a loved one translate.
If there is an interpreter in the room, be sure to make eye contact with the patient and not the interpreter when you speak. Eye contact lets someone know your prime focus is on them and their needs.
In order to work effectively with a patient with communication difficulties, I like to schedule some extra time for the appointment. A longer time slot allows the person to ask plenty of questions and to discuss treatment options clearly.
If you need to talk to hard-of-hearing or deaf patients while providing their treatment, a longer appointment gives you more time to stop working and remove your mask so they can clearly see your mouth in case they prefer to lip read. You don't need to speak slowly, but you should always face the patient and enunciate carefully, even more so if you have facial hair. Hard-of-hearing patients may also ask you to shut off drills, ultrasonic scalers, irrigators or other background noise when you speak to them.
Writing comments on a white board, notebook, tablet or iPad can help while talking with patients and explaining things, especially if there is something they don't understand. Similarly, I like to give patients a written copy of all treatment options to consider, or post-op instructions, before they leave. Models, charts and other visual aids can further emphasize points that you would normally explain verbally.
Take your time and be patient while communicating with a deaf or hard-of-hearing patient. Do not shout or interrupt. This is good practice when communicating with any patient, but especially with hard-of-hearing patients because conversations take more time and interruptions can be frustrating. Shouting can interfere with hearing aids or come across as condescending.
Treatment may be lengthier than usual, so plan for it. If you show your frustration, the patient will pick up on your mood and become frustrated or demoralized. The more willingness you show to adapt, the more the patient will know how much you care.
Ask your patients what is best for them. They will know which communication techniques work well and what they can do to help. Have your office staff ask them about their needs when they schedule their appointment so you can be prepared, and ask your staff to book a longer time slot.
When treating deaf and hard-of-hearing patients, it is most important to have a positive attitude about helping them complete their dental treatment. Take the time necessary to provide these patients with quality treatment and nurturing care. It may take some extra training and practice beyond what you learned in dental school, but it will be rewarding for you and your patients.