Patients can be fickle. After all your practice spends on marketing to bring 10 new patients in the door, perhaps only four will come back a second time. Even established patients who are diligent about hygiene appointments may hesitate for months when they need treatment for a problem. Without a concrete, proactive plan to encourage retention and treatment acceptance, your practice runs the risk of not only losing patients, but also having to propose more complex (and expensive) treatment to solve issues that progress while they delay.
How, then, do you go about convincing more patients to come back to you for their own benefit and grow your practice as a result?
The three E’s to dental patient retention and case acceptance
From a patient’s first visit to your website to the moment they leave the office, many factors influence how they perceive your practice and, accordingly, your recommendations. Most, however, can be grouped into three major categories: experience, efficiency and education. Take a moment and try to see your practice through your patients’ eyes: What kind of experience does your office provide? How efficiently does the team handle treatment planning and scheduling? How well does everyone communicate important information?
Experience: Make patients feel welcome at your dental practice
Unfortunately, many dental patients are reluctant visitors in the first place. All the more reason, then, to ensure that when they do make an appointment, the whole visit is as painless and pleasant as possible. In fact, creating this atmosphere begins even before the appointment. If your website is dated, uninformative, or unresponsive, it may give the impression that your practice will be the same. And given that more and more people prefer to make appointments online than to call, if your website doesn’t offer online booking, it is more important than ever that reception staff be welcoming and efficient in handling phone calls.
Create a welcoming atmosphere that ensures patients know that you and your team value their time and are invested in their care. Small gestures such as opening the doors to the practice a few minutes early for your morning patients can go a long way toward creating that welcoming experience.
Don’t take patients for granted and don’t ever give the impression that you are. If your patients feel no connection to you, it costs them nothing to make an appointment with another dentist, but your practice loses marketing ROI and potential revenue every time they do.
Efficiency: Make scheduling dental appointments easy
On the other hand, the friendliest office in the world will struggle to overcome disorganization and inefficiency, even if the patient doesn’t witness it. How many appointments has your practice lost because someone forgot to enter details of a current visit into a patient’s record before they checked out? How many patients leave after a good discussion of a treatment plan to “think about it” or talk to their spouse about finances and then never call to schedule – and never get a follow-up call from you?
Up-to-date, user-friendly, well-supported practice management software is invaluable in solving such issues. By organizing all the information generated during each visit and putting it at the team’s fingertips, a good practice management system helps make sure that your efforts in the chair don’t go to waste. Automated appointment reminders free up the team to handle other tasks and do away with forgetfulness.
For a more personal touch, a call from the treatment coordinator to follow up on treatment conversations two or three days after they take place lets patients know that you’re sincere in your care for their oral health and serious about the timeliness of the treatment plan. If your practice doesn’t already have one, hiring a treatment coordinator can give patients the opportunity to go over all the factors involved in their personal situation, including finances, without wreaking havoc on your schedule.
Education: Carry on the conversation
The word “education” is usually linked to patient education – informing them about the importance of good oral hygiene, how dental disease can affect systemic health and any concerns posed by their particular oral condition. However, education can go both ways, and perhaps the better word in this context is “conversation.” What does the patient value and how does it relate to their oral health? What motivated them to come to you? What information do they need to accept a treatment plan?
By learning these details, you can make your side of the educational conversation more compelling. For example, if a patient tells you that they love good food, explaining how periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss may help them better understand the importance of timely treatment. Using images of the patient’s own teeth and gums also can be of great help in illustrating pathology, especially when terminology may be a stumbling block or the problem isn’t painful – yet.
Ensuring that patients hear from your office more than twice a year and have instant access to reliable health information is critical. Sending regular e-newsletters and automatic follow-up emails through your practice management system, creating a strong social media presence and having a website with solid educational content all help remind patients of the importance of dental health throughout the year – and of you as their trusted, caring provider. In fact, a 2019 study by Shadrav and colleagues found that dental practices using a “7/12” touch points strategy – making sure that patients received at least 7 communications in 12 months – increased their active patients by more than 80% and gained almost 40% more new patients than practices that communicated less frequently.
The fourth E: Economics
Of course, the final hurdle to be cleared before any treatment plan is accepted is the financial one. Ideally, this piece of the conversation should be saved for last, after the benefits of treatment have been fully presented and explained in a way that engages the patient’s personal interests.
Describing any financing options that the practice offers or accepts, rather than focusing on the total sum, can help patients feel that payment is manageable. To avoid confusing the patient during this conversation, try to think about it from their point of view: What aspects of dental insurance and payment plans are they unfamiliar with, even if they seem obvious to you?
Every patient counts
Improving patient retention and treatment acceptance is a process, and seeing results takes time – 6 months, at least, until a new patient returns for their next hygiene appointment. The good news is that even a little growth can have a significant effect. Just raising your average new-patient retention rate from 40% to 50% to start with can boost your practice revenue by thousands of dollars a year. And every new patient is a potential source of good reviews and referrals that can grow your practice even more.
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McKenzie S. 5 ways to grow case acceptance and dental revenues in your dental practice. Dentistry IQ. August 8, 2018.
Quan SL. Having the difficult conversation: When patients opt for no treatment. Dentistry IQ. July 5, 2018.
Robinson C. A guide to patient retention and practice growth. Dentistry Today. May 17, 2021.
Shadrav A, Kalenderian E, Roig P. “7/12” patient touch point strategy: A novel method to increase patient attendance and recommendation. BDJ Open. 2019;5:14
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This article was originally published in the summer 2022 issue of Advantage by Patterson Dental.