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Inside Dentistry
October 2009
Volume 5, Issue 9

What Patients Want

Michael Abernathy, DDS, has heard many people talk about offering 5-star service as the key to successfully marketing a dental practice. But he says patients really are not just looking for 5-star service, particularly because they assume they'll receive it.

Abernathy, who owns 26 dental practices, including Family and Cosmetic Dentistry of North Texas—an $8 million a year dental practice—surveyed 16,000 different patients throughout all of his existing practices. When he reviewed what patients had to say, he identified 12 things that patients want and that affect how they choose a dentist.

None of these pertain to external marketing, he says. They all have to do with internal aspects of the practice and, in no particular order, are listed below.

  1. A prompt new-patient examination. If patients call and are able to be seen within 48 hours, that helps them to choose that dentist. Anything longer than that for an examination and they go to another office, Abernathy says.
  2. Warm and friendly staff. “I guess what readers need to keep in mind is that the patient surveyed was the only person that got to vote on this criterion,” Abernathy clarified. “The staff didn't get to vote whether or not they were warm and friendly, only the patients did.” Because the one and only contact a prospective patient has with a practice may be over the phone, dental offices have to come across over the phone as warm and friendly, he says.
  3. Having the highest standard of sterilization and general cleanliness in the office. When patients chose a practice, it wasn't just clean, but it was visibly well-kept from top to bottom, Abernathy says. If there were bugs in the overhead light fixture, ants in the reception area, or a stain somewhere, those surveyed felt as if the practice didn't sterilize their instruments properly, he says.
  4. Up-to-date facility. While some might think this translates to a brand-new facility, not so, says Abernathy. Patients he surveyed meant that the dental office didn't smell or look like a dental office, or an old office, for that matter. It had a new coat of paint. It had decent carpeting, and everything was very clean, he explains.
  5. Postoperative phone calls. Those surveyed were likely to choose a dentist who called them after a procedure, not one who delegates this task to their office staff. They expect the doctor to make the call, Abernathy says.
  6. Postoperative instructions. Patients want to receive well-written postoperative instructions in addition to verbal instructions, Abernathy says. Whether or not they receive them influences their choice of dentist in the future.
  7. Personal hygiene of the doctor and staff. Patients surveyed provided examples of what positively and negatively influenced their choice of dentist, and tattoos and body pieces, for example, had no place in the dental office, Abernathy found. “So, if you have a tattoo, cover it up. If you have a body piercing, take it off; and again, patients don't want long hair falling in their face,” he says. “Some patients even mentioned amalgam fillings in the mouths of doctors and staff as not being good personal hygiene.”
  8. Quality of smiles/dentistry in doctor and staff. As others have suggested in this feature, it appears that dentistry's marketing of the value of quality dentistry and a beautiful smile have actually started working. According to Abernathy, “dentistry has started convincing patients that the quality of care that we provide should be the type of quality care we have in our own mouths.”
  9. Being on time. More patients commented about a dentist being on time as a factor in their decision than any other, Abernathy notes. Patients feel that if dentists are late with them that they don't respect their time, period. “They expect you to be on time, every time,” he says.
  10. Convenient practice hours. Abernathy learned from patients surveyed that hours of operation are very important and a deciding factor in a patient's choice of dentist. This is not unlike what others have noted previously. Peak demand times are from about 7 a.m. until about 10 a.m., then again from about 3 p.m. until about 6 p.m. These hours may vary, but in general, patients want dentists to be open and available during the hours that they want—and are able—to come in, he says.
  11. “In a down economy, patients are very reluctant to take time off during the week. Everybody knows somebody who's been laid off,” Abernathy adds. “Patients may think that if they take off for dentistry or an elective procedure, that the employer may use that a reason to lay them off.”
  12. Convenient/nearby location. A dentist's location is an important factor when choosing a dentist, he says. The patients Abernathy interviewed in cities said they would not drive more than four to five miles to go to a dentist. If their dentist were further away than that, they would find a new dentist, he says.
  13. Well-explained treatment plans and various financial options. Patients want and expect dentists to explain what treatment(s) they need, answer their questions about what's just been discussed, Abernathy explains. Further, they want the doctor to have options for them to consider when it comes to the financial aspect; they need not one, but a few choices for financing so that they can afford to do the dentistry they need. Patients will choose a dentist who provides details and options.

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