Patient Media


The Language of Chiropractic

by William D. Esteb

Words are so pitiful. Communication specialists suggest that more than 90% of the message we send to others is non-verbal. Compared to body language, inflection, energy level, eye movement, and appearance, words are nickels and dimes in the million dollar world of effective communication.

Those most anxious for the most effective recall "script" are often disappointed. "What should I say when the patient says so and so?" A scripted life would be predictable and we could fool ourselves into believing we were in control. Words are extremely ineffective when it comes to communicating at the most meaningful level.

We are visual animals. We obtain most of the information about the world around us through our eyes. Witness the cliche's, "Seeing is believing" or "A picture is worth a thousand words" or "I'll believe it when I see it." Look out! See what I mean? Our language is amply seasoned with a visual orientation.

Granted it is usually a "feeling" that prompts patients to consult your office, but what does chiropractic "look" like to your patients. Are you using visuals to communicate the full nature and severity of their condition? Are you using pictures to explain the relationship between the patient, the patient's insurance carrier, and the doctor? Are you using highly-visual terms to make your recommendations memorable? Or do you numb them with the most expedient and least effective communication commodity; words?

In the offices I've consulted, a doctor's personal and professional success seems related to their level of communication skills. Poor communicators seem to have less effective practices than excellent communicators. Poor communicators have less fulfilling careers than excellent communicators. In fact, I've seen excellent communication skills (verbal and non-verbal) make up for less than astounding adjusting techniques, poor management abilities, and ineffective office procedures. When the chiropractic message is projected through appropriate words, pictures, and congruent body language, patients are more likely to "get it." When patients understand chiropractic they are empowered to defend their chiropractic decision to others outside the office. When patients more completely understand the chiropractic story, referrals are an obvious by-product. When staff members can visualize the "big idea," telephone scripts become almost unnecessary. When you see the big picture, it's pictures that make the difference.

The ability to communicate in a visual, and more effective way, has little to do with chiropractic. It's part of a repertoire of interpersonal skills related to the ability to socialize, anticipate the needs of the others, and create meaningful relationships. It is often a reflection of one's self-esteem. Those with high self-esteem seem to be better communicators. Those with low self-esteem figure no one's interested or are afraid of taking what might be an unpopular stand. The resulting patient perception is the doctor's lack of conviction and confidence, undermining the patient's trust, patience, willingness to comply, and ultimately the healing process itself. Effective communication is a crucial aspect of a successful practice--especially something as misunderstood as chiropractic.

Getting away from words for a moment, what are other non-verbal ways of communicating? Before exploring the visual opportunities for more effective communication, consider some of the other sensory inputs such as smell, taste, and touch. How are you using olfactory stimulation in your office? What does your office smell like? The hydroculator? The X-ray film processor? The cigarette smoke clinging to the C.A.'s hair? The billiard room next door to your office? The last patient?

Our culture tends to downplay the role of smell. Go to any Third World marketplace and drink in the aroma of freshly ground spices, ripe fruits, and colorful vegetables. Our supermarkets protect everything in plastic wrap, insulating us from an important constituent in the buying decision--smell.

In 1986 a popular general interest magazine conducted a remarkable "scratch and sniff" study among its readers to determine some of the psychological effects of different aromas. They discovered the most stressful aromas were those associated with mint; spearmint, wintergreen, etc. The most restful were vanilla and apple pie. Virtually anyone who has tried to sell their home has been told to bake bread or a pie before the big open house. The objective is to associate a positive sensory input with the business at hand--selling the house.

Ever catch a whiff of perfume or cologne in a large crowd that you remember from high school? The memories come flooding back in torrents you can't control. Our brains are wired in such a way that aroma is a powerful mnemonic device. Offices that enjoy trying new things have begun adding aroma to the adjusting table head rest paper! The aroma applied to the edges of the head rest paper become associated with the chiropractic adjustment. Vanilla. Orange. Butterscotch. "May I go into the 'chocolate room' for my adjustment today?" Mix it up. Have some fun. Give patients something to look forward to! Outside your office, what do you think patients will think of every time they have vanilla ice cream? Chiropractic of course!

Apply the same idea to sound. What does your office sound like? A series of scary drop pieces falling into place? The commercials on the easy listening radio station played in the reception room? The song by the Fifth Dimension your patients painfully associate with breaking up with their high school sweetheart playing on the "oldies" radio station? The less-then-forthcoming patient conversations heard through the hollow-core adjusting room doors? The lack of privacy when discussing financial matters at the front desk? The loud IBM Selectric typewriter inches away from the headache patients in the reception room?

Everything in a chiropractic office should contribute to its purpose. Leave nothing to chance. Every sensory input, whether sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell should add to the patient's understanding of chiropractic and reveal or contribute to your purpose. Make sure new patients get the message that not only are they likely to get the pain relief they seek, but many patients remain under care and adopt a "chiropractic lifestyle." What senses are you engaging to send this message powerfully and congruently to patients in your office?

In the visual domain, the first picture affecting a patient's compliance is the exterior appearance of your office. What signal does it send to patients? Does the clinic sign feature the word "chiropractor" as if chiropractic was a consistently uniform commodity like pork bellies and sugar, or is the doctor's name more prominent?

What's the first impression new patients get when they walk through the front door? What year is it in your office? Do the colors and furnishings suggest a 1970's out-of-touch-earth-tone-beige or a "we're-in-touch-with-reality" contemporary color scheme? Are the magazines current, organized, and in good condition? Does it feel comfortable, safe, and human? Is the business office behind the front desk organized and efficient or in disorder? In mere seconds a new patient sizes up the doctor's attitude, attention to detail, and credibility with a single glance from the front door.

Are the brochures in your reception room full of pictures or a sea of type? Most chiropractic brochures work so hard at getting the chiropractic dogma correct, that little energy is given to the visuals that accompany the words. Instead, patients see the 1960's clip art illustration or 1970's black and white photography on the cover and decide they'd rather not spend the considerable effort to plow through the copy. No wonder your patients prefer People magazine!

The real opportunity to use specifically chosen visuals to communicate chiropractic occurs during the patient's report of findings. Are you using pictures of cracks in a foundation, orthodontic braces, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, or a front end alignment to a car to explain spinal kinesiopathology? Are you using artifacts like a phone cable or the smell from a burnt electrical wire to communicate nervous system damage? Have you put your dimmer switch in your report of findings room yet? Have you picked up a rock with barnacles on it from your last trip to the beach to better explain the remodeling of bone spurs? The list is endless. Harness your creativity and make your chiropractic message more visual.

We learn about the world through our five senses. Offices that use as many senses as possible in their patient communications have more fun and their patients are more likely to understand and remember the chiropractic message. As long as you are held hostage by what patients might think about scented headrest paper, your antique rusty hinge used to demonstrate spinal degeneration, or your other innovative tools, you shortchange the impact your communications can have. Moreover, you compromise your role as a teacher--the true meaning of the word doctor.

Buy the book
My Report of Findings
Originally published in 1993
240 Pages
US $24.95

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