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Capitalize on Those Preventive Care Appointments

By: Debbie Seidel-Bittke, RDH, BS

September 19, 2011

Preventive care and periodontal maintenance appointment scheduling may be the most important source of success for your dental practice. But not every practice knows how to fully tap this goldmine. Filling your schedule with future dental hygiene appointments is an art that requires a daily system — and forming some new habits — but once learned, it’s a system that will make your dental hygiene department rock-solid.

Keep Your Schedule Rockin’ With Pre-Blocking

The most effective way to keep the hygiene schedule full is to, number one, pre-block it. This means blocking out specific timeframes in your schedule for specific kinds of visits. For example, how many hours each day do you need for new patient exams? Cosmetic procedures? Pediatric Patients? Prophys? (with and without x-rays). Include time to chart data if you don’t have an assistant, and remember to allow 10 minutes for breaking down the room, disinfecting, and setup. Best tip is to have another auxiliary available to do this simple, yet important task.

The goal of pre-blocking appointments is to keep the hygiene schedule full and to be productive — so that each day brings in the optimal amount of hygiene revenue. Holes in the schedule lead to a domino effect of patients not returning for maintenance care, and the dentist will see openings in the treatment schedule in the very near future.

Tip: Have the dental hygienist or hygiene assistant schedule future dental hygiene appointments. They are the auxiliary who understands the purpose of the next visit and how much time needs to be allotted for the patient’s next visit.

So, setting up a pre-blocked or tiered schedule is key, but that’s not your only step for successfully scheduling preventive care (Dental Hygiene) appointments. Now you need to make sure that ALL patients make an appointment for their next dental visit. What’s the point of pre-blocking the patient time if you don’t fill the appointment slots, with the correct type of patient treatment?

Postcards Only Get You So Far

Now the question is, how do you get those patients on the schedule for their next visit(s)? Many years ago, it was considered the standard of care to have a patient complete a postcard. This would be mailed to the patient when it was time to call in for their next hygiene appointment. Most dental offices have since discovered this method to not only be passive and impersonal, but fairly unsuccessful. Offices that use this type of recall system will lose about 60-70% of their current dental hygiene continuing care patients.

Offices that have patients call to reschedule appointments find many openings in their hygiene schedules. People are very busy in the 21st century, and they will put off calling their dental office if they have to call to schedule their future appointments. The good news is that technology in this 21st century allows people to manage their calendars from the palm of their hand. We can lock in appointments on our hand-held device and we even have pop-up reminders which occur months, days, and even minutes in advance.

Now all you have to do is get the dental appointments on the calendar. Your highest success rate occurs while the patient schedules their next appointment while they are the dental office and before he/she leaves the office. Better to have the patient walk away with a date and time than to hope that he/she calls the office for the next appointment.

It’s All in How You Ask

Are you using a call-in type of continuing care system? Usually a patient declines to schedule an appointment because he/she was asked a closed-ended question (where the answer is either yes or no). Take a look at these three different questions:

  1. “Mr. Jones, would you like to schedule your next cleaning with me?”
  2. “Mr. Jones, when you would like to schedule your next cleaning appointment?”
  3. “Mr. Jones, I can see you on Wednesday July 6th or Thursday July 7th for your next continuing care appointment. Which day works best for you?

The first sentence is a closed-ended question. It allows the patient to say “No” very easily. The patient may forget to call back in 3 or 6 months.

The second question is better but still allows room for the patient to say “No” to an appointment. It also allows the patient to be in charge of the appointment book. You are the professional, and you are the one in charge of the schedule. You understand the patients’ needs and you know what is available on the office’ schedule.

The third question suggests, without question, that the patient will be coming back, and h/she already understands the importance of why he/she will be returning. There are no questions to be asked. The patient already has bought into his/her treatment plan and understands the importance of regular preventive care.

See what a huge difference a few tweaks in your wording can make? The significance of excellent verbal skills will help to implement a successful continuing care system and book your hygiene schedule months in advance!

Choose Your Words Wisely

There’s still more to say about the power of your words. When scheduling the hygiene appointment, avoid using words such as “cleaning” and “recall.” The perception among patients is that a “recall” appointment is not significant. After all, you are not “recalling” the patient. Have you heard of a recall on a car with a problem? This is nothing similar to what you are doing in your dental office. The dentist is not “recalling” the patient back into the practice to check whether they need a cleaning or tune-up. You are inviting patients back for preventive care.

Likewise, asking a patient to return for a “cleaning” is like asking to have your house cleaned — anyone can do it. This image runs counter to today’s hygienists, who are considered preventive care professionals and non-surgical periodontal therapists.  We need to add value to the dental hygiene appointment by using words such as preventive care appointment, continuing care, and periodontal maintenance. Nix the word cleaning.

Seal the Deal in Your Farewell

Every patient should be dismissed with a verbal reminder that there is another appointment, even if it is six months away. Create a perception of value and importance in the mind of the patient by saying something like, “Mrs. Smith, I look forward to seeing you in July, and I want to hear more about your daughter’s wedding. See you at your preventive care appointment July 6th, and I will recheck that one area I was concerned about on the lower left side.”

Try to ask the patient to come back at a time similar to the one he/she is currently scheduled for. Many people work best if they have consistent times for certain appointments. For example: dental, psychologist, chiropractic, etc. Also, some patients want afternoon dental appointments and some prefer them first thing in the morning. People also better remember their appointments when there is continuity and consistency. Tip: For younger patients always try to schedule before the noon time hour.

Of course, you will provide the patient with a written reminder with the next date written on a card along with Doctors name, hygienists name and all the important office information.

Try an Easier Way to Contact Stragglers

Even with excellent verbal skills and a well-oiled machine of utilizing a pre-blocked schedule, you will still have some unscheduled patients. You know the drill: Each month someone has the daunting task of running the report and calling patients who need to have an appointment. One lucky auxiliary is in charge of creating the list of overdue and patients who are due but not scheduled for their hygiene appointment.

Before any calls can be made, research has to be completed regarding when the last hygiene appointment occurred, the patient’s periodontal health, areas of concern, if there’s outstanding treatment, what insurance allows, what x-rays are needed, the length of the appointment needed, any outstanding balances, etc. All phone numbers must be called and messages left at each number. Maybe one in twenty patients will answer the phone, let alone schedule an appointment. This can become monotonous and very time consuming.

The good news: Now, you understand the systematic approach of pre-appointing patients, which is much more efficient and productive. And that means a lot less patients to track down the hard way. But if you are stuck with making those calls, try this: Some offices have late evening schedules. Why? Statistics prove that it is easier to reach patients by phone between the hours of 5 p.m. and 8 pm. Even if your office only stays open late once in a while, you can use this time to call the stragglers — and get a better response rate. Some offices even have Saturday appointments. This is another great time to make these calls.

Never Say Never

Despite your best efforts, you’ll find a handful of patients who won’t immediately commit to a future dental hygiene appointment. Until those patients have a feeling of urgency to schedule or else, they may not change their behavior. Once patients understand the importance of preventing disease and understand that calling a week before they are due for their preventive care appointment means they have to wait for an appointment until they are a month overdue, they may never change their behavior.

Some patients may live in another country or state and don’t know when they’ll be back in the area. It is very valuable to recommend that these patients have another dental hygienist see them for their preventive care during the interim of their next visit to your area. This is just one more exception to this strategy for success.

But the above setbacks don’t have to keep you from being proactive. When patients do fall through the cracks, the best method to have them return is to call them on the phone. When the correct “continuing care” program is in place, the hygiene schedule will be full. This keeps the practice in touch with its patients and increases patient retention dramatically.

Bottom line, preventive care and periodontal maintenance appointments must be communicated in a manner that will allow patients to understand the importance of preventing disease. When patients understand that without good oral health they will not have good overall health they will listen and take action.