Patient Payment: Finding the Right Words
Effective financial conversations begin with great communication skills
Most dental teams can agree that reducing stress is a top goal at their practices. While there can be many different causes of stress in the workplace, many of these situations have a common solution—communication. Excellent communication skills help to resolve issues both with patients and between members of the team. By communicating more effectively, practices can reduce overall stress levels, including stressful conversations about patient finances.
Discussing finances with a patient is one of the most common stressful situations encountered by dental practices, but it is also one of the most important. For dental teams looking to diffuse the awkwardness and inherent stress of discussing such a fraught topic, there are steps that can minimize these negative feelings, all of which involve increasing and enhancing communication.
Early, Effectively, and Often
Financial conversations should begin early in patient relationships, long before patients walk into the practice and potentially even before they schedule their first appointment. A recent industry study found that 50% of patients looked for information online, with 41% researching treatment options, 34% searching for a possible provider, and 32% researching cost.1 Keeping this data in mind, practitioners should make it easy for patients to see what payment options are available to them via the practice’s website and social media. When patients do pick up the phone to schedule an appointment, it becomes an ideal opportunity to continue the financial conversation. Dental team members should be proactive so that patients are aware of their financial options and responsibilities before they step foot in the practice.
Once the patient is in the practice, it is helpful to have signage that encourages them to inquire about their payment options, especially financing. Always ensure that the practice’s desire to collect payment at time of treatment is displayed in a professional yet friendly way. An example would be, “Payment is greatly appreciated at time of service.” In addition, all possible payment arrangements should be displayed in clear view. A framed sign that says, “Ask us about our flexible financing arrangements” can open the door for patients who would like to ask about their payment options but aren’t sure how.
Distributing written financial guidelines is another way to effectively communicate patients’ payment responsibilities and options in a non-confrontational way. People learn and retain information in different ways, and being able to read the something instead of just hearing it can help clarify questions and concerns quickly and easily.
A Team Effort
Dental practices can build a good patient-staff “communication bridge” by cross-training the entire dental team in financial arrangements. Every team member should be able to answer common questions about the practice’s guidelines and options. If the patient asks a question that one team member cannot answer, he or she should be able to build a bridge to the expert team members in the office. For example, the person could say, “That’s a great question, Mrs. Jones. Jane is our expert in financial arrangements. Let me see if she’s available so you can get your questions answered and ask about anything else you might have on your mind.” Using this language communicates to the patient that her question has been heard, the team wants to give her the correct information, and there are people who are ready to help.
Preventing Collection Complications
Collecting past-due monies is more challenging today than ever before, especially in dentistry. If a practice’s financial guidelines include extending credit through in-office payments, there is the potential to for uncomfortable financial conversations with patients. Practices that send bill after bill and allow patients to pay over time should strongly consider moving to a “pay at the time of treatment” model. This process may be challenging, but it can be done. Make sure the entire team embraces the change and expresses excitement about it.
When the time comes, do not send patients letters or emails to let them know about the change. Instead, prepare to have live, in-office conversations with each patient about the change in financial policy regarding payments due. Then, as patients finalize their visit in the administrative department, use the following verbiage, “Ms. Jones, your fee today is $700. We estimate your insurance benefits will pay $500. How do you wish to handle payment—cash, check, or credit card?” If the patient objects to paying on the day of service, offer an alternative such as pre-stamped payment envelopes and ask that payment be received within 5 business days. Let the patient know, kindly but firmly, that you will be following up if payment doesn’t arrive in the specified time frame.
A Solid Investment
Good communication requires thought, preparation, and time. Investing the effort upfront will reap many benefits along the patient relationship journey. Conflict happens when there are misunderstandings, and misunderstandings happen when there is miscommunication, or worse, no communication at all. When it comes to financial guidelines, a practice’s first and foremost goal should be that there are no surprises for their patients or themselves.
1. Rothstein Tauber Inc. Third Annual Major Purchase Consumer Study. November 2014. www.synchronyfinancial.com/third-annual-major.pdf. Accessed July 1, 2015.
About the Author
Lois Banta is CEO, president, and founder of Banta Consulting, Inc. From terrified dental patient to popular international speaker and dental consultant, Lois has been involved in dentistry for more than 30 years. Through Banta Consulting, she provides her expertise to dental practices, both large and small, across the country and internationally. For more information about Lois and Banta Consulting, visit www.bantaconsulting.com.