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When and how to refer patients to a colleague

Date: August 2022

Author: Mandy Dennis, RDH

Every dental provider runs into a situation where referring their care to a colleague is necessary.  There are multiple reasons to do such.  Admitting to when and how to do so can make or break the relationship you have developed with your patient.   You are trusting a colleague to care for them in the same way you want to, but know it to be in the best interest of the patient.  

Beyond your comfort zone

You have key parts of care you are great in.  Maybe you are the pro in getting wisdom teeth, but the simplest of root canals aren’t your thing.  That’s ok.  Knowing your limitations can actually strengthen the relationship with your patient.  Being able to say, I want you to have the best for care and while I can’t provide that in “this situation” but I know someone who can, can building trust in your patient.  They won’t see you as a know it all.  Knowing your limitations will help your patient trust the treatment you do provide even more.  Admitting and creating areas of vulnerability, develops trust.  


Dentistry is still a business.  In my office, we say “We are a customer service business, that just happens to do dentistry”.  This is true in everything we do.  Being able to do a procedure, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  Is this a procedure which may take you twice as long as a specialist, or another colleague?  In the amount of time you would do that procedure, you could have performed 2 or 3 other procedures which are more in your wheelhouse.  Do those! Time equals money.  If you are taking longer to do a procedure which keeps you from doing treatment you are more efficient in, then it becomes a more expensive and less profitable treatment.   Stick to the things you are great at and allow your colleagues to do the same.  


What is the patient’s expectation of the treatment?  Specialists can provide certain types of procedures which can provide a better prognosis than many general practitioners can.  That’s why they are specialists.  Periodontist and oral surgeons can many times provide additional care which may provide a more optimal.  This is another example of doing what is best in your wheelhouse and helping the patient to get the best results from treatment.   Build relationships with specialists in your community.  Find out who provides the same type of customer service care as you do.  Building those relationships will help you to transfer your patients for a short time.  

Follow Through

Consulting with colleagues on the best treatment and referring to this colleague, doesn’t end when the patient leaves your office.  Communicating with your colleague should be had to ensure the patient has all of their expectations met and that the recommended treatment has been completed.  This patient isn’t meant to stay at the practice you are referring to.  Your patient will have more confidence knowing you have been communicating on their behalf.  No one wants to be forgotten.  Ensure you are taking care of the patient from the beginning to the end.  They will be returning to your office with even more confidence in the care you provide.  

Take aways

  • Don’t be afraid to know your limitations.  Provide the care you are best at.

  • Make the most of your time.  Do things which will be most profitable for your day.

  • Do what’s best for your patient and let someone else do what’s in the best interest for the long care.

  • Follow through to ensure the patient has been completely cared for.  Communication is key.

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