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Are You the Hero or Guide with Patients?


How would you describe your role with patients? Do you see yourself as the white knight hero swooping in to rescue them from gum disease or as a sage guide offering advice on how to have a healthier mouth? In this article, we will explore who should be the “hero” in your practice and how this perspective could change your approach to presenting treatment options.

StoryBrand and the Role of The Hero

I’ve been reading marketing books by Donald Miller who developed a website format he calls StoryBrand which proposes that websites should embody the structure of a story.  As I was reading, I was struck by how his model also relates to dentistry and to your relationships with patients.

He observes that every story (both books and movies) follows a similar path. As you read this path, notice the similarities to how you (should) work with patients.

  1. A Character… (your patient)
  2. Has a Problem…
  3. And meets a Guide… (the dentist)
  4. Who gives them a Plan … (treatment plan)
  5. And calls them to Action … (schedule an appointment)
  6. That helps them avoid Failure… (worse dental outcomes)
  7. And ends in Success… (increased health)

Doesn’t this perfectly exemplify the flow of a new patient in your practice? Let’s look at how this model affects your communication with patients.

You Are Not the Hero in Your Practice

One of the things I love about this model, is that the patient is positioned as the hero of the story – not you. This concept alone is revelatory. You are not the hero in your patient’s story! The patient is the hero of their own life and you are their trusted guide. Consider what makes the Star Wars stories so compelling. We relate to our hero, Luke Skywalker, who has multiple problems and who meets guides, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda who help him reach success. It is Luke’s journey and he trusts the beings who walk alongside him, who offer guidance instead of the beings who demand obedience.

Benefits of the Patient as the Hero

When you recognize that you shouldn’t position yourself as the hero but as the guide, a whole new perspective opens up. Patients who are actually their own heroes, want to solve a problem that has disrupted their lives. They have a purpose, a goal and journey to take.  In stories, the guide provides wisdom and a plan so that the hero can overcome a challenge. Donald Miller writes, “Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.” Your patients come to you with a history of their oral health and a desire for change. As the guide, your role is to listen to them and based on their challenges, design a treatment plan that will help them avoid more problems and ultimately reach their goals. You are Yoda, not the hero.

I love that your job is to provide the plan, and that it is the patient’s task to implement that plan and slay the dragons along the way. Continuing with this metaphor, your treatment plan is not the end goal: the end goal is for the hero (your patient) achieving their dream.

When your patients agree with your treatment plan, they are saying according to Miller, “I believe you can help me solve my problem, and I believe it so much I’m willing to put skin in the game I’m willing to part with my hard-earned dollars.”

Miller uses a lovely metaphor to describe customers (your patients) process in deciding whether to make this commitment to you.  He advises that you should picture them as standing on the edge of a rushing creek – nervous about wading in—but wanting to get to the other side. As their guide, your role is to make their journey easier by placing rocks in the water. You are saying, “step here and then here.”

The Guide Offers Two Types of a Plan

And what makes you a trustworthy guide with a plan your patient wants to follow? Donald Miller also has some insights about this. The goal of any plan is to eliminate confusion and reduce fear. He describes two types of plans: the process plan and the agreement plan.

  1. The process plan most resembles a treatment plan because it describes the steps your customer takes when working with you. These plans should be easy to understand because it is the step-by-step instruction to get patients out of the rushing water and emerge safely to land.
  2. An agreement plan is focused more on alleviating fears associated with doing business with you. An agreement plan clarifies the values you share with your customers; it anticipates your customers fears and describes how you meet those concerns. The language I’ve used to describe an agreement plan is Philosophy Statement. It is the promise you make to your patients about how they will be treated and what they can expect at your practice.

What This Means for You

Let’s review how these insights can change your relationships with patients.

  1. When you perceive the patient as the hero and you as the trusted guide, you remove your ego from the relationship. Your job isn’t to convince the patient to do dentistry but to offer a plan that will help the patient achieve their goals.
  2. Therefore, as a guide, you need to understand your patient’s story, their challenges and their dreams. Your guidance is always centered on them getting to their best selves and being more equipped to face obstacles. This means you need to do more asking and listening than talking and describing.
  3. Patients will be more likely to trust you and buy into their treatment plans, when the plan is easy to understand, when it defines clear action steps and when it combines both facts and feelings.
  4. The treatment plan, (defined by Miller as a process plan) needs to be accompanied by an agreement plan which creates a sense of trust between you and the patient. You should talk about your philosophy with all new patients, have excerpts of your philosophy framed in your treatment rooms and continually attend to patient’s fears and feelings as much as you attend to their oral diagnosis.

All of these insights suggest that you spend more time with patients asking them questions and sharing your philosophy and values. In fact, this is stuff I’ve been preaching all along but it’s lovely to see this validated from another perspective.

By the way, if you want to read Donald Miller, I suggest you get “Building a StoryBrand” and “Marketing Made Simple.” They are great, easy-to-read, resources.

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Inspired Us to Dream Bigger, and it Works

“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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