Inside Dentistry
August 2013
Volume 9, Issue 8

Build a Better Practice Through Patient Communication

An exchange of accurate, tailored information is key

Naomi Cooper

Employing the latest marketing tactics in a dental practice is often thought of as being “proactive” and “strategic.” But for any marketing plan to deliver results, the fundamentals of practice management must be in place—or the time and money spent on marketing can end up going to waste. In the end, no amount of marketing will work if the practice cannot build relationships as well as diagnose, treat, and communicate with existing patients—much less the prospective new patients that call, visit the practice website, or walk through the door based on referrals or marketing efforts.

Tailored Communication

Treatment planning and presentation should be tailored to the individual patient, depending particularly on whether the patient is new to the practice or a long-term patient of record.

Relationships with new patients are particularly vulnerable and fragile. When there is no pre-existing relationship between the dentist and the patient, trust has yet to be established.

Consider this situation: a new patient has just come to the practice after his or her long-time dentist recently retired. The patient had tremendous respect for this dentist, but upon examination, it appears that the dentist was not particularly proactive. Perhaps he or she had a “wait and see” attitude that prioritized his patients’ financial concerns—real or imagined—over optimal treatment planning. Or maybe he just didn’t believe in “selling” treatment. Regardless, it’s clear that the patient has been in a state of supervised neglect for some time. If the new dentist decides to address every major issue with the patient on the first visit and immediately recommends a high-cost, comprehensive treatment plan, the patient is likely going to leave thinking “overdiagnosis”—and may never come back. The new dentist will have unknowingly killed the opportunity to establish rapport, trust, and ultimately, value for dentistry.

Current patients, on the other hand, have established a certain level of belief in their dentist’s skills. The dentist and team likely know a bit about the patient’s lifestyle and background. This information—marital status, family size, and the possession of luxury goods, for example—can lead to assumptions about whether the patient has money to spend on dentistry. Whether it is conscious or not, dentists and team members often base their treatment presentation upon these assumptions. Instead, dental practices should talk openly about treatment options and costs and let patients discuss payment for treatment. Often when employing this approach, dentists are surprised to learn how many patients accept treatment in spite of their apparent financial circumstances.

Whether a patient is new to the practice or established, dentists walk a fine line when it comes to patient communication; they must recommend the best course of treatment without turning patients off. However, there is a middle ground; phasing treatment, for example, is a proven method of achieving case acceptance even when there are true financial constraints or when time off from work is a concern.

Planting the Seed

The key to better communication with both new patients and patients of record is to find the middle ground. It is okay to recommend a more comprehensive plan to existing patients while dialing it back with newer patients. That is not to say that dentists should ignore the major problems found in newer patients. But a gentler approach in terms of treatment presentation should be taken.

In general, it’s helpful to think about planting seeds in your patients’ minds about their ideal smile. Again, at the first visit, perhaps even the second, it may not be necessary or advisable to provide a full-mouth treatment plan. Rather, the team can address the issues that are most urgent, and express concern about the overall state of the patient’s oral health, alluding to major issues and concerns that will need to be taken care of in the coming months and years. In subsequent appointments, the full plan and associated costs can be discussed without pressure.

Dr. Paul Homoly often discusses the topic of patient “readiness.” He argues that as long as patients are not ready to accept treatment because of their own life circumstances or personal beliefs, they simply will not accept their dentist’s recommendations, no matter how many times the dentist explains their importance or how well he or she educates patients about the benefits of treatment.

Only a change in personal circumstances that drives a move toward readiness will ultimately change a patient’s behavior—and no amount of patient education or tenacity can affect personal readiness. So when a patient says “no,” doctors and teams shouldn’t take it personally, or as a flat out rejection of the proposed treatment plan. Rather, these responses should be viewed as a “not yet”—and the team should continue to remind patients over time what their comprehensive treatment plans look like—and that the path to their ideal smile is available when they are ready.

Informing Before Performing

It’s also critical that everyone in the practice is up front and clear with patients when discussing the treatment plan, insurance coverage issues, and the out-of-pocket costs associated with the prescribed treatment, even if it is a difficult conversation to have. Nothing destroys trust between a dentist and patient than completing a course of treatment and having the patient walk out of the practice with a case of sticker-shock. Situations such as these result in patient attrition, and very likely, a disgruntled former customer. Clear, deliberate financial conversations with patients may be uncomfortable to have, but dentists must find a way to address these issues in order to avoid communication gaps that can lead to negative patient reviews and negative word of mouth, both online and off.

Paying for What They Want, Not What They Need

A dentist can never know what a patient is looking for in terms of achieving their ultimate smile if the right questions are never asked. One question that really works when included on the practice’s new patient intake form and the health history update form is, “If there was one thing you could change about your smile, what would it be?” The patient’s answer (or lack thereof) provides an ideal conversation starter for the dentist, hygienist, or assistant.

For instance, patients often desire whiter teeth or a brighter smile. Knowing this provides the perfect opportunity to create a win-win scenario; the dentist can explain that teeth whitening cannot be done until the patient’s periodontal health is restored. The patient is more likely to accept the much-needed periodontal treatment if his or her goal of getting whiter teeth is part of the plan.

Ongoing Opportunities

Patient communication and education should not be limited to the two or three times a year a patient comes into the office for their hygiene appointment and annual exam. Keeping in touch with patients consistently throughout the year will keep the conversation flowing between appointments. Dentists have the unique opportunity to truly build long-term relationships with patients. Communication is the foundation of these relationships, and with good communication, the chances of increased case acceptance and patient retention are exponential.

Implementing a practice e-newsletter, including a blog on the practice website, using electronic appointment reminders, and even creating social media profiles on sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are all tactics that serve to reinforce the fact that dentists are their patients’ partners in continually thinking and learning about their oral and overall health. Vendors such as Sesame Communications, DemandForce, and My Social Practice can be incredibly helpful in leveraging technology for practices that don’t have the time or expertise to do it on their own.

Today, dental patients are looking not only for a competent doctor, but also for someone who demonstrates that they truly care. Whether through verbal skills or electronic mediums, ongoing and effective patient communication is one of the keys that unlocks a prosperous future for every dental practice.

About the Author

Naomi Cooper is president and founder of Minoa Marketing and serves as chief marketing consultant for Pride Institute. She is a respected dental marketing consultant, author, speaker, and industry opinion leader who co-teaches Pride’s groundbreaking marketing course, The New Rules of Dental Marketing. She blogs regularly at www.minoamarketing.com. Naomi can be reached via email at naomi@minoamarketing.com, on Twitter @naomi_cooper, or on Facebook at www.fb.com/minoamarketing. For information about upcoming course dates, call Pride Institute at 800-925-2600 or visit www.prideinstitute.com.

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