When practice benchmarks are discussed, there is usually little focus on growing the practice’s active patient base. Yet this is one of your greatest assets, says Penny Reed
First, let’s define an active patient: a patient in your practice who has been in for an office visit within the past 24 months. Whether they were seen for a hygiene exam and cleaning, an emergency evaluation, or for dental treatment – it does not matter – they were seen in the practice within the last two years.
As a principal dentist, if your active patient number is growing, you can rest assured that the number of individuals who consider you to be their dentist is growing as well. The more active patients you have, the greater the opportunity for production today and referrals tomorrow.
Growth is critical, but how do we keep our current patients engaged and wanting to be part of our practice? We must understand how the average patient evaluates the quality of their dentistry. Most patients have no comprehension of the difference between poor, mediocre, and excellent quality dentistry. Of course they want to experience little or no discomfort and they want their restorations to look attractive. – that level of quality is expected no matter what. Yet, how patients judge the value of their work is primarily based on one measurement – the feeling they get when they interact with your practice. Whether they are in your treatment chair, in the reception area, or on the phone with a team member, patients are always evaluating the quality of your practice by your interactions with them.
How do we keep our patients engaged? We must begin with our philosophy – or as I love to call it, our SMILEosophy when it comes to customer service.
Say the patient’s name
It may sound too simple, yet in today’s fast paced and high tech world it is easy to inadvertently make a patient feel like they are just another patient. Dale Carnegie said it best, ‘The sound of a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.’ It takes little effort yet the benefits are massive. Ask callers for their name when on a call, even if you aren’t yet sure why they are calling. When a patient enters the reception area, be sure that they are greeted by name within seconds. If we don’t know them yet, be sure your team is trained to quickly and enthusiastically say hello and call the patient by name.
An easy way to implement this in your practice is to take a photo of each patient at their new patient visit and insert it in their digital chart, making it easier to recognise patients when they are in the practice.
Another helpful tip is to utilise your practice management route slips to show the patient’s family appointments. This has two benefits: 1) it helps one to easily recall the names of family members and, 2) it provides a ‘cheat sheet’ to encourage scheduling of other family members while they are in the office.
Make the patient feel important
This is achieved by sincerely focusing on them. This begins with the culture we establish and nurture in our practice.
One of the very best examples of this is the environment Disney creates in their theme parks. Years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a behind-the-scenes tour of the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. I went on the tour because I am a bit of a Disney fanatic, yet I learned one of the best business lessons of my career. Within minutes of checking in for the tour, the cast member leading the tour took us through a brief orientation. He told us that while we were participating in the tour we were honorary cast members. This meant that we must understand the difference between on-stage and off-stage behaviour. For example, when we were behind the scenes (off-stage) there would be conversations we would have and things we would see of which the guest, or customer was not aware. When we were on-stage, there were certain behaviours and conversations that must occur due to the fact that we were in front of our guests.
In the dental practice, if we think of every environment, interaction, and conversation we have with a patient as on-stage, this sets the tone for creating an office where they patient feels valuable.
Here are measurable ways we can do this:
• Be sure that our personal cell phones are not visible. Nothing tells a patient that they aren’t important like seeing a doctor or team member looking at their phones. Personal mobile phones should not be allowed on-stage.
• Keep notes on what’s happening in the lives of your patients. If the patient or a family member has been in ill, make a note of it and ask them about it at their next visit. If the patient is getting married or has a child who is getting married, make of note of that as well and ask to hear about it.
• Stay connected with your patients. When a patient hasn’t been in to see you in more than 10 months, your practice is at risk of losing that patient. Have a team member reach out to them by phone to check in and see how they are doing. Focus on the patient and their relationship with the practice more than making the patient feel you are simply calling to fill an opening on your schedule.
I am in charge of my attitude
This is the part of the philosophy that you may be tempted to skip over. However, while it may be easy for you, chances are, it isn’t for someone on your team. Every day we make choices about whether we will focus on being happy and grateful or being resentful and grumpy. While we often cannot change our circumstances, we can change our point of view. Our attitudes are contagious – and our patients pick up on them.
The attitude of the practice starts with the dentists and carries through to the team. A dentist who focuses on the positives of the day/practice will be focused on providing an environment that rewards positivity and makes no time or accommodation for a bad attitude. A positive outlook takes a proactive approach to problem solving, which makes the practice a more pleasant environment for both team and patient.
Listen to your patients
Most people aren’t great listeners, especially as technology use has increased! Discovering what is important to our patients and having a two-way conversation about their dental health goals is vital to making them feel unique and also to influencing them towards optimal treatment.
While most dental teams will ask, ‘What’s your chief complaint?’ or ‘Why did you come to see us today?’, this does not engage the patient on that what they truly value about their oral health. The best questions begin with, WMI – what’s most important? An example is, ‘Mrs Smith, what’s most important to you in your dental health?’ And then we listen. If their answer isn’t clear or they don’t know exactly what you mean, ask it a different way. ‘What are your goals for your dental health?’ or, ‘What does this mean to you?
Here are three steps to better listening:
• Make eye contact
• Avoid interrupting the other person
• Repeat back or summarise what the other person has said.
Exceed your patient’s expectations
Dental treatment is not easy for patients to understand. The procedure names are complicated and X-rays mean very little to the untrained eye. Because they rely on the dental team to guide them in treatment options, we can greatly exceed our patient’s expectations by involving them more in their dental care.
Most dental teams have one or more intraoral cameras. These cameras give the practice the ability to show the patient what we see at a high level of magnification. We can tell a patient they have a crack in their tooth or that there is a dark line at the margin of their crown, yet unless they can see it, it can be difficult to understand.
Engage your patients in their oral health by showing them the condition of all of their teeth, especially at their first visit. Then, when discussing their needed treatment and priorities, point to those images.
Dentistry is a relationship business – don’t underestimate the importance of staying connected between visits. One of the best ways to do this is to make post-operative calls. These calls are ideally made by the dentist or assistant who was with the dentist during the procedure.
Has your office ever done a post-seat call? This call to your patient, two to three weeks after a major procedure involving crown or bridge placement, shows a level of care that most offices don’t provide.
Here are a few other opportunities to follow-up with your patients:
• Birthday greetings either sent electronically or in the mail
• If the patient hasn’t been into the office for a while and you want them to know they are missed
• If you discover a patient is leaving your practice, let them know you care and would welcome them back if they decide to return.
The ultimate goal of the Smileosophy approach is to grow your active patient base. This number should be measured at least once per quarter to be sure the practice is growing. Contact your practice management software provider to find out how to determine the number of patients who have had their last visit in the past 24 months. Most dental software companies consider any patient who is still active in the system an active patient and may not give a time frame.
The more active patients you have in the practice, the more patients you have a connection with to increase your productivity. Always engage your active patients in your marketing plans. Even when your patients know, like, and trust you, their oral health isn’t something that is always on their mind. Stay connected and grow your practice.