In dentistry, avoiding the empty chair is a top priority, since each empty chair results in lost opportunity. This lost opportunity is double-edged, since a patient has lost the chance to receive treatment, and your practice has also lost a chance at making money. This occurrence is further compounded by the reality that the affected staff members would still like to get paid for their time at the office. The dental professional can do something else to be productive during that time period, but your primary goal of providing patient is unfortunately not being met.
I have heard some people in dentistry preach that in order to keep the schedule full, you need to “train your patients” on your office’s policies. To me, that phrase has always sounded demeaning, as I cannot help but think it sounds like we're training a dog. The ultimate motivator for making and keeping a dental appointment lies in a person wanting to be there. I don’t ever want a patient to come to a dental appointment simply because they fear getting fined or verbally reprimanded—I want them to look forward to their opportunity for care, and to feel like I am helping them take care of their dental needs. The following tips below will explain how to make this happen.
Make the appointment comfortable for the patient
All too often, people associate dentistry with pain, and that is an issue that absolutely cannot be ignored. With this apprehension of pain comes fear and anxiety resulting in an extremely valid reason for many people to postpone dental care. According to a study published in the Journal of Dental Hygiene, an estimated 8.4% of patients have missed an appointment due to dental anxiety. Eliminating this apprehension begins with making every effort to ensure that your patients have a comfortable dental experience.
Whenever you get a new patient in your office, ask them if they have had any negative dental experiences in the past. Let them know what your office can do to help them avoid that situation again. For example, let's say that a patient had a painful experience with a “heavy-handed” dental hygienist. At this point, make your patient aware that your office focuses on patient comfort and that every step will be taken to ensure their comfort.
There are many options available to prevent painful dental experiences. Sometimes, the solution can be as simple as talking the patient through an injection, while slowly administering the anesthetic. Other times, the solution may be to adjust the power controls on the ultrasonic instruments to decrease sensitivity. For dental hygienists, using a thinner scaler to access tight tissue can make a world of a difference. These simple, yet effective, measures will show your patients how much you care and keep them coming back.
Remind the patients about upcoming appointments
People nowadays have hectic lives and even with the best of intentions it can be difficult to remember everything. This is where the convenience of automatic patient reminders come into play, and there are several systems to choose from, such as SolutionReach or Demandforce.
Ask your patient if they would like to receive a confirmation by email, text, phone, or all of the above. Also, custom tailor the frequency to your patient’s liking. I would at least recommend that the patient be contacted at least two days in advance, so that if they need to reschedule, the front desk has a chance to fill this opening.
Be flexible with your office schedule
Oftentimes, people want to make time to go to the dentist, but have a difficult time fitting it into their busy schedules. When dentist offices have schedules that only have appointments available from 8AM to 5PM, this situation creates further stress and frustration for the patients. But on the other hand, if a dental office chooses to be a little more flexible with their hours, it can go a long way towards ensuring patient satisfaction. For example, an office can choose to have a late night once a week or open at 7am instead of 8am. Another great option is to have Saturday hours once a month. The more options patients have, the happier they will be.
Another way to make scheduling easier for patients is to have more hygienists working during high demand times. For example, during the summer months, many parents desire to get their children’s teeth cleaned before school starts up again and hygiene schedules can begin to fill up quickly. By having a substitute hygienist or a part-time hygienist work extra hours, you can accommodate your patient’s needs and earn extra income for the practice.
Build relationships to make patients feel at home
Creating a positive relationship with your patient starts the moment the patient walks through the door, and does not end until they leave their appointment. Every staff member that the patient comes in contact with plays a critical role, and one bad apple can ruin the effort of the entire group. For example, if someone at the front desk reprimands someone for being late, the patient may be offended and not be happy no matter how well the rest of the appointment goes.
An essential component of being comfortable at the dental office is that a patient feels like they are at home. This begins by creating an ongoing connection with your patients. By letting patients request a preferred hygienist, they will be able to recognize a friendly face and know what to expect at their preventative care appointment. Dental hygienists spend the most time with patients compared to the rest of the dental staff, and often get to know their patients quite well as a result.
Building relationships will also help patients accept treatment recommendations. When a patient feels like the dental staff genuinely cares about their dental health and is not just trying to increase their production numbers, everyone benefits. Once you have gained a patient’s complete trust, the question of “if treatment is going to be completed”, becomes “when treatment is going to be completed”.
By creating a reliably positive dental experience for your patients, you create an environment in which your patients want to come back. They don’t need to be pressured or reminded repeatedly by your staff to return for future care. In this scenario, the patients feel like all their needs are being taken care of by trusted dental professionals and they will be pleased to be a part of your practice.
Set financial expectations accordingly
For many people that visit the dentist, there is nothing worse than receiving a hefty bill that you didn’t anticipate. If you want to keep your patients happy and ready to reschedule, your office must be completely transparent about financial issues.
Most people want to know exactly what they will be responsible for before any treatment is rendered. And of course, this involves extra work by the staff as far as insurance verification, being knowledgeable of patient benefits, explaining treatments plans, and completing pre-estimates. Collecting any amounts owed before the patients leaves will also help prevent future hassles for both the patient and the dental practice. In the end, all of these details will come together to create stress-free environment for dental care.
Another way to keep patients satisfied with the practice is by giving them financing options. Most patients understand the need to complete the proposed treatment, but they can be intimidated by the financial investment involved. Care Credit, Wells Fargo, and iCare Financial are some of the best financing companies for patients. If credit history is a problem for any of your patients, iCare doesn’t even require a credit check.
There are many obstacles that need to be overcome when it comes to keeping a schedule full in dentistry. Fortunately, these obstacles can be demolished by fulfilling all your patients’ dental needs. By focusing on keeping your patients happy, getting them to come back will not be a challenge—in fact, they will be more than happy to be a part of your practice. And hopefully they will share their glowing recommendations with others, ensuring the success of your practice for many years to come.
*** Amber Metro-Sanchez, RDH BA has practiced dental hygiene for the past 13 years with Dr. Chris Bible in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was a member of the 2015 Colgate Oral Health Advisory Board, and is a member of the RDH Magazine Advisory Committee.***