A Patient’s First Visit
First impressions are lasting impressions
Richard P. Gangwisch, DDS
The lifeblood of a dental practice is a healthy flow of new patients, and their first appointments are make-or-break moments. You must sufficiently impress new patients so that they will happily entrust you with their oral health; otherwise, your marketing and referral efforts are going to waste.
For an effective icebreaker, a team member can call new patients the day before their first appointment to help familiarize them with your office. The team member can answer any questions that the patient may have and ask if there are any special requests. Ending these phone calls by enthusiastically telling the patients that you are looking forward to seeing them tomorrow helps set the tone for a positive appointment.
As an exercise in perspective, try entering your office through the designated patient entrance. Was the entrance free of trash? Were the painted surfaces in fresh condition and glass surfaces free of fingerprints? Sit in your reception room for a while and observe the surroundings. Is the décor up-to-date, the seating comfortable, and the area pristinely clean? These are the things your new patient will see before they have had a chance to meet you. While entering your building and sitting in your reception area, new patients are already beginning to formulate their opinions about your practice.
Train your receptionists to greet all patients, especially new ones, with a wide, genuine smile. When a new patient arrives, have someone from reception walk out to the waiting room and welcome him or her to your office with a handshake. The team member should bring along any paperwork that the patient needs to read, explain any forms that need to be filled out, and answer any questions that the patient may have. Ask the new patient if he or she would like a cup of water, juice, or coffee. A single serve coffeemaker can be an excellent and inexpensive addition to a reception room. You can also add a small refrigerator with a glass door and stock it with bottled water and juices.
Having creature comforts available for patients while they wait helps them relax. Ensure that your magazines are current issues. Adding a television can also make waiting more tolerable. Tune the television to something with broad appeal, such as a popular home design and remodeling channel, or you can subscribe to dental television programming for a reasonable fee, which can be an excellent tool to educate your patients. If you choose dental programming, select a program that can be customized to include material related to your office and treatment offerings.
Place a book in the waiting area that includes portfolio pictures of your work for new patients to page through while they wait. This can plant some seeds to grow interest in potential future treatment. The before and after photographs in your portfolio can be a great sales tool to increase acceptance when you present treatment plans to patients. I cannot tell you how many times a patient has told me, "Oh yeah, I saw that in your book out in the waiting room."
Although you should routinely keep your appointments running on time, it is especially important to minimize the wait time for new patients. If you normally perform prophylaxes during a new patient's first visit, make certain your hygienist performs a painless cleaning, even if it means having the patient return for a touch-up or more definitive periodontal treatment once his or her gingival inflammation has subsided. When it's time for you to examine the patient, try to keep his or her wait time to less than 5 minutes. Once patients have met you and have a good initial impression of your office, they will tend to be much more patient and forgiving if they have to wait during future appointments.
First impressions are lasting impressions. When you first walk into an operatory to meet a new patient, have the patient sitting in an upright position. Other tips for creating a good first impression include the following:
Smile. This should go without saying because we are in the smile business. But sometimes, having a busy day may cause you to forget. Use a mirror to practice presenting a pleasant, friendly smile.
Make eye contact. Gaze, but do not stare.
Maintain good posture. Don't slouch, and lean forward slightly when listening or shaking hands.
Use the patient's name. Repeat patients' names within the first 5 seconds of hearing them. This will help you to remember their names, and patients are more comfortable when you use their name in conversation.
Shake hands. Be firm but not overly firm, and do not forget to make eye contact when you shake.
Monitor your body language. Exude confidence, but do not go overboard. Keep your chin up and shoulders straight-people like doctors who have the appearance that they know what they are doing.
Respect personal space. Personal space is considered to be the 2 feet directly surrounding a person. Respect this space by maintaining a comfortable distance when conversing with a patient.
When you first meet a new patient, start by asking them some questions. Showing a genuine interest in your patients helps to establish a rapport. This should only take a couple of minutes, but it can make a huge difference in a new patient's perception of you. As you progress in your conversation, ask open-ended questions to help you learn about your patient's values. This allows you to customize the information that you provide to match those values. While examining a patient, it is sometimes necessary to call out technical terms to an assistant to record your observations. Let the patient know that you will take whatever time is needed to explain those terms and observations in more understandable language once you have completed his or her exam.
At the conclusion of new patients' first appointments, plan ahead for their next visit with you. This can help you gauge how successful you were in acquiring their ongoing business. The receptionist should ask, "When is a good time for your next appointment?" rather than, "Do you wish to make an appointment?" Make a list of those who do not schedule a future appointment and follow up with a phone call later. For all new patients, mail a card to tell them how happy you are that they have joined your practice. Proper attention to the first visit can go a long way in retaining people as lifelong patients.
About the Author
Richard P. Gangwisch, DDS, a master of the Academy of General Dentistry and a diplomate of the American Board of General Dentistry, is a clinical assistant professor at the Dental College of Georgia at Augusta University and maintains a private practice in Lilburn, Georgia.