Understanding the dental patient’s decision-making process

Dentistry isn’t quite like any other consumer product or service and as such we must take time to understand things from the patient’s perspective.

Although developed back in the 1960’s, the classic stages of the purchase decision-making process are still relevant today as it is important to consider all stages of the process and not just the purchase phase.


Problem awareness/need recognition

Recognition of a need by a consumer can be caused by internal or external stimuli, for example toothache is an internal physiological need felt by a patient whereas exposure to an advert for teeth whitening seen in the waiting room is an external stimuli.

Needs can also be classified as functional or social and perhaps the best model to illustrate this is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory is that the lower level needs must be obtained before progressing to the next level.

Information search

This is where the patient will ‘shop’ around in order to find a provider which they feel can fulfil their needs. This search will include:
• Online – search, individual practice websites, directory listings, social media pages
• Word-of-mouth recommendations and influencers
• Practice marketing – speaking to team members, printed literature


At this stage the patient will look at all of the options available and apply their own ‘criteria’ with which to appraise each option.

For instance, if someone is suffering with tooth pain, part of their criteria will include – which practice can see me ASAP, whereas for a patient who is considering a smile-makeover, part of their criteria may be concerned with how much confidence and trust they have in a dentist.


This is the final choice of what to purchase and from whom. This decision will depend on the information obtained from the previous steps based on the perceived value, product/service features and capabilities that the purchaser deems important.
However, at this stage, purchasers can be swayed by offers, promotions and discounts and also influenced by personnel. For instance, a new patient may have made their decision to sign up to your practice but when they get to the practice a receptionist who is despondent and surly with them will put them off and change their decision.

Post-purchase evaluation

Once the buyer has ‘consumed’ the product/service they then take time to digest whether or not they feel that the product or service did in actual fact fulfil their wants and needs and whether their expectations were exceeded, met or, not so.

Post-purchase dissonance, also referred to as ‘buyer’s remorse’ is when a consumer feels a sense of guilt or fear that they made the wrong choice. This is particularly prevalent with large, more expensive purchases.

Positive influence

Depending on which treatment/service a patient is deciding on, will dictate how quickly they move through the decision-making process above.
When considering a patient’s journey with your dental practice, it is important to remember that the patient may not necessarily be the decision maker and ultimate purchaser. It is often the female head of the household who conducts the research and books dental appointments and treatments for the rest of the family.

The role of marketing is to provide patients with information in order to help them move their way through the decision making process. Ensure that you are considering things from the patient’s point of view and not yours. Try to be benefit-focused and not too technical; striking a balance between appealing to a rational and emotional view point.

The key is to establish trust and loyalty, to help patients make their own decisions, not to push them and ‘sell hard’ akin to a used-car salesman! It may be that patients need more time to make a decision so make sure that you have an efficient follow-up procedure in place. You may wish to read our blog on effective follow–ups here.