3 great ways to effectively communicate with your patients

January 25, 2013

If there is one thing we all need to really improve, it’s our communication skills. Not just in dentistry, but everywhere. However, because this is a magazine devoted to dentistry, I’ll keep my discussion to our beloved profession.

If there is one thing we all need to really improve, it’s our communication skills. Not just in dentistry, but everywhere. However, because this is a magazine devoted to dentistry, I’ll keep my discussion to our beloved profession.

Being able to effectively communicate is tremendously important to your practice’s success. Whether it’s your everyday conversations, or using software to help explain procedures, we are constantly judged by how well we can communicate with our patients.

Over the years, we’ve been made very conscious of communication within the walls of our offices. We’ve learned the value of speaking with our patients and how to explain things with a variety of effective tools. But what about when patients are outside the office? How do you communicate and stay in touch with your patients after they leave the office? Do you ask their opinions and, more importantly, do you listen to them?

In the last 5 years, the world has changed significantly when it comes to keeping in touch. Whether it’s Facebook or a myriad of other websites and tools, our world and our patients are more in touch than ever before.

To that end, you can set yourself apart by being an office that makes a concerted effort to keep in contact with your patients both before and after their appointments.

Now, I’m not talking about deluging them with communication. It’s been pretty well established that too much contact can have a negative effect on perceptions of any business. However, it’s also important to make sure you are in contact and letting patients know you are interested in them. The good news is there are a lot of companies in the dental space that are both willing and able to help you along the way with these types of services. Let me give you a few examples of what we are doing in our office to help promote interaction between the team and our patients.

Confirmation
One of the things our team members probably dislike the most is the confirmation process. Over the years, our phone calls and “appointment reminder” calls have helped keep our schedules humming along. Unfortunately they’ve also created a group of patients who don’t pay as close attention to their appointments as they should. They inherently know we will call to remind them, so if for some reason we can’t reach them, the no-show rate is higher.

Unfortunately as we’ve become more mobile and more dependent on our mobile phones and email as our lifelines of communication, patients answer their mobile phones less and less and check their voicemail on an intermittent basis. Think about it and I’m sure you’ll find you are no different...I know I’m not.

This means your front desk confirmation calls are becoming less and less effective as a means of ensuring patients will make their appointments. What to do?  Our office uses a service that sends text messages and emails to patients in our database to confirm their appointments. I’m stunned how many patients check their email and confirm their appointments after midnight or respond with a positive confirmation via text message when my Admin Team hasn’t spoken with them on the phone for a confirmation in months.

It’s a mobile world and our patients are used to emails and text messages. Moving to the realm our patients are used to responding to really has made us more efficient. Also, as you consider that the younger demographic uses cell phones more than traditional computers and landline phones, it only makes sense to migrate our systems to better interface with their preferred means of communications.

Online payment systems
As I type this it’s mid-December and the Christmas shopping season is in full bloom. One of my dream moments truly would be to meet Jeff Beezos, the man who founded and chairs Amazon. His company has changed the way I shop and has saved me uncounted amounts of time.

The convenience of shopping when we want and paying when we want has had a tremendous impact on both our lives and our spending habits. This extends not only toward our online behavior, but also to paying health care statements. It’s not unusual for patients to make payments on accounts in the wee hours of the morning.

Patients can do this via a link from your office website that takes them to an online payment “portal.”

This portal is secure, encrypted like a credit card payment site from an online retailer, and allows patients to see their account as well as make payments electronically.

Offering patients more flexible times to make payments and check account balances fits better with the busy schedules that many of us deal with day in and day out.  

Practice surveys
It used to be that only very large companies with big budgets could afford to do “customer satisfaction surveys.” Smaller businesses, like dental practices, just didn’t have the resources. Thankfully, technology has changed that.

We now conduct patient surveys routinely and I’m grateful that we do. We’ve discovered things about our business, both good and bad, that have allowed us to make changes or emphasize things that have helped us provide better service to those who trust us with their care.

We send a confidential survey link via email. When patients clink on that link it takes them to a secure webpage where they fill out a survey tailored to the type of appointment they had that day. They can fill out the survey either anonymously or they can include their name. The surveys are sent to all new patients and then randomly selected from appointments with each hygienist or each doctor. We have parameters set up to ensure each patient only fills out one survey a year. This keeps those with several appointments from feeling inundated with communications from our office.

We’ve found these surveys incredibly valuable; they have helped us become better at what we do. We’ve also received very positive face-to-face feedback from patients who say they are impressed we care enough to find out what they think and how they feel.

Wrapping up
There are many companies that provide these types of services for you. The fees vary, but they are reasonable and, especially when you factor in the value  of the data, can have a huge financial impact on an office.

While it does take some time to digest the data and make the changes patients want and need, these types of services are invaluable from the standpoint of truly understanding those who keep you in business.

I’m a complete believer in learning as much as possible about your patient base and this is just one more way to better understand those who trust us with their oral health. We spend so much time educating our patients, now technology is allowing our patients to educate us!  

About the authorJohn Flucke, DDS, is Technology Editor for Dental Products Report and dentistry’s “Technology Evangelist.” He practices in Lee’s Summit, Mo., and has followed his passions for both dentistry and technology to become a respected speaker and clinical tester of the latest in dental technology, with a focus on things that provide better care and better experiences for patients. He blogs about technology and life at blog.denticle.com.