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Debbie Seidel-Bittke, RDH, BS is known as a top dental consultant by Dentistry Today.

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Where Have All the Patients Gone?

By: Debbie Seidel-Bittke, RDH, BS

January 4, 2010

Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

Where Have All The Flowers Gone? by Peter Paul and Mary

As Owner and Founder of Dental Practice Solutions I have had the opportunity to talk with dental practice owners every day on a consistent basis. I also review and analyze dental practices on a weekly basis, using my extensive dental knowledge to educate practitioners on how they can improve their bottom line.

What I hear consistently are dental practices, which on average, see 30 new patients each month. Most dental practices have an average of 2,500 active patients. Through the assessments we do at Dental Practice Solutions, most of our clients have been practicing for at least 12 years.

After being in practice for 12 years and examining about 30 new patients every month; you might wonder why most practices only see a mere 2,500 patients on a consistent basis. If all of these patients continued to return to the office on a regular basis there should be an active patient base of at least 3,500 patients (accounting for attrition)–not a mere 2,500.

In the United States, approximately 78% of general dentists are solo practitioners. Why is there only enough work to keep one dentist busy? The answer is simple, dentists are losing more patients out the back door than are coming in the front door. Most practices I review have only 6 days of hygiene patients each week. With this point arises the question: why are these practices only seeing 6 days of hygiene each week?

First of all, I want to address the reason behind why patients may not be coming back to your office. The lack of a “personal relationship” with your clients could be to blame. By building a personal relationship with each patient, you will establish trust and give them a reason to choose your office over another one down the street.

One of the most common questions that I hear daily basis is, “why do we need to change? We always done things this way.”This statement signals a major breakdown and is a silent killer for any dental practice. Dental practitioners should also keep in mind that the field of dentistry changes very quickly and dental management skills that worked five to ten years ago probably do not work in today’s world.

There are many reasons why a practice might lose patients. I will highlight a few now and more each week during the month of January. Each week in our Tuesday Tooth Picks I will add suggestions on how you can prevent losing patients.

Our January 7th web workshop will highlight some very important tools to not only to increase profitability in the dental hygiene department, but add value to the procedures and dental products your prescribe for your patients.

The “New Patient”

Your first impression is a lasting impression. I always ask doctors to periodically call their own office so they will understand how the phone is being answered. The dental practice owner and all team members need to be aware of how a client may feel when calling in to make an appointment. Do you get the feeling that the phone is answered with someone who has a smile on their face? The end of a New Patient phone call needs to have a positive ending. I am talking about all aspects when I say positive. I mean from the effect and emotions a smile can leave a person calling your office for the first time all the way down to making an appointment that is suitable to the potential new guest in your office.

Participate in Social Media

Talking about the new patient, I want to mention that social media is a great way to market your dental practice. It is a great way to stay connected with your patients and let them know what is happening in your dental practice. Do you have new services or products that you are offering in January 2010?

Twitter and Facebook are a few ways that cost zero dollars to get the word out to your patients. People in the 21st century are all just a tweet or google click away.

Take advantage of these opportunities and show you are on the leading edge!

Offer good “Customer Service”

How long does your new patient need to wait until they are able to get an appointment in your office? If you have blocked times to schedule new patients you are more likely to successfully accommodate them in a timely manner. If you heard something good about someone and are anxious to meet them, do you want to wait a month to meet them? Neither do your patients!

I have called many offices and an answer machine let me know the office team members were too busy to take my call. The message said they were busy with another patient and they were not able to answer my call. If I were a new patient calling to schedule my first appointment and I was greeted by a recorded message, I would be discouraged by this not so warm welcome.

What types of information do you send your patients home with? Do they have written oral hygiene instructions or post op instructions? Do you send out a new patient package prior to the first appointment? This can easily be done if you have a website that patients can download information from. If it is not possible to distribute the information through your website, think about emailing a package of information.

Do you make post op calls? If you have a difficult or a fearful patient, think about the impact you would make if you called after hours to make certain they were feeling okay about their dental appointment that day. My niece just had her 3rd molars extracted and it was so comforting when the oral surgeon called to check on her much later that night.

How long does it take you to return patient calls? Do your patients leave with a written treatment plan for any future treatment? Are they able to send emails to confirm their appointments? What type of payment plans do you offer? These are only a few questions you should take into consideration when trying to improve upon your dental practice.

Team “Hiring and Training”

How do you know what type of personality fits into your practice? There are various models for testing temperaments. You need to know what type of personality fits each job description in your dental practice. You need to know if hiring another person with a strong personality will interfere with any other strong personalities that currently work in the office.

Employee turnover costs the dental practice thousands of dollars. A consistant team is another reason that patients will continue to come back to your office. It is all a part of building a strong rapport for your practice.

“Recare System”

This is one system that will make or break your patient retention. It is also the most neglected dental operational system. This may be the underlying reason behind the loss of patients and the reason you don’t have more hygiene days each week. It also might be the #1 reason you have open slots in the schedule.

It has been estimated that around 70% of your patients will be lost if they are not pre-booked for their hygiene appointments. This is a hard fact of the dental business. It gives a sense of urgency when patients know that if they don’t pre-book the next hygiene appointment 3 and/or 6 months in advance, they will have to wait a long time for their next hygiene appointment.

When patients know they have to wait a long time to schedule or reschedule their next appointment – I am talking about the appointment schedule being full with hygiene appointments. The only open slots which should be left open intentionally; a few weeks in advance, are non-surgical periodontal procedures and new patient appointments. All hygiene patients must schedule in advance or become over due dental hygiene recare appointments. Patients who call in at the last minute or cancel last minute for their dental recare appointment need to be put on a call list. If a patient does cancel these patients on the list will be called to come in. Dental hygiene preventive treatment is crucial. Patients need to understand this is not a casual appointment. You need to be communicating the importance of these frequent appointments and give a sense of urgency. Patients need to sit up and listen that without good oral health they will not be completely healthy. The oral cavity is the link to total health.

Dental patients who come in on a regular basis have most likely established a good rapport with the hygienist and entire team. Patients will enjoy coming back when they feel a common bond with the people who care about them and respond in a friendly manner.

Finding the Lost Patients

You will find that your hygiene schedule has less holes when patients always pre-book their recare appointments and you only have intentionally left openings for the non-surgical periodontal treatment and new patients.

Our hope is that you have an increased stream of active patients during 2010. Please stay tuned for more methods of success. We will continue to discuss these topics in more depth as the month continues.

Thank you for your support and we hope you will share our information with other colleagues.

The team at Dental Practice Solutions