How well we communicate with our dental patients can determine the outcome of those communications. We follow a process in all our dental procedures. We were taught to prep, etch, prime, bond, fill, cure and polish a tooth to perform a composite restoration. Establishing a process for communications is no different.
Genuinely delivered, a guideline can easily become the norm in your practice to produce outcomes such as a strong internal referral program, a decrease in canceled and no-show appointments, and an increase in treatment plan case acceptance. Practices with a successful internal referral programs have communicated their goals of inviting new patients to the practice. Good phone skills can make the difference as to whether a patient keeps or cancels their appointment. Additionally, a dental script used by the team to give a patient a reason for returning to the practice in the future can reduce cancellations and no-shows.
All communication begins with rapport-building skills to engage your patients. Finding common ground is one way to open conversations, avoiding potentially controversial topics such as politics and religion.
For treatment plan discussions, keep the limited appointment length in mind. In this case, spend just a few minutes at the beginning of the appointment building rapport so that there is still time for a dental focus. Use open-ended questions rather than closed-ended questions to produce a natural flow of informational dialogue. Closed-ended questions are most appropriate when used to confirm or ask for a decision.
Many practices find the most effective and cost-efficient way to build the patient base of a practice is through internal referrals. However, dental teams often have a hard time making a referral program work due to awkward and unnatural scripting.
Realizing that each patient might respond to a different approach, a formula for the conversation can start off with a compliment, followed by an invitation or request For example, “Mrs. Molar, we love seeing your name on the schedule. We’d be happy to take care of anyone you know needing a new dentist.” Or, “We’ve never met your [husband, daughter, etc.]. We’d love to meet them if they need a dentist.” Patients may not be aware that they are able to refer their friends and family if they are used to other healthcare settings where practices are not always actively welcoming new patients.
For future appointment retention, verbalize a reason for the patient to return when concluding their appointment. An example could be saying, “Mr. Dentin, when you come back for your three-month appointment, we’ll check on how your home care has done to improve the inflammation on the upper right.” When documented, this information can also be used to confirm the next appointment or even help keep an appointment in the event that a patient tries to cancel upon confirmation.
Having a good go-to response to a cancellation request such as, “Is there anything we can do to help you keep your appointment?” can help your team to work creatively with patients. Perhaps another time on the same day can work to fill an opening in the schedule, or getting them out a bit sooner by performing an early exam can save an otherwise canceled appointment.
When discussing restorative treatment, open-ended questions such as, “How are your mouth and teeth feeling?” allow the patient to give much more helpful information than, “Is anything bothering you?” Once initial questions have helped identify which interests patients have for their dental health, follow-up questions can be more closed-ended in order to confirm understanding. An example of a follow-up question could be, “It sounds like you are interested in changing the color of your front tooth filling when we repair the chip in your tooth, is that right?” Avoid terms that patients may not understand such as composite, margin and restoration. They may smile and nod but not ask what you mean.
Positive communication outcomes depend on building the process over time. Remember that while your team members all come from different experiences and skill levels, consistent results come from training a consistent message. Give your patients the experience and service that best represents you and your practice by training these skills.
Meet the Author
Dental Practice Consultant
Karen Burnett, RDH, MA
Aldrich CPAs + Advisors LLP
For Karen Burnett, enthusiasm for dentistry includes over 30 years of experience ranging from dental assisting and dental hygiene to more than 18 years of experience in dental practice coaching. She takes pride in providing results-oriented business solutions, using a tailored approach for the growth of individuals and teams. She is skilled in internal and... Read more Karen Burnett, RDH, MA
- Dental business management
- Hygiene program profitability and analysis
- Treatment presentation and incomplete treatment follow-up
- New patient recruitment and retention
- Practice administration