The 5 worst things that can happen when a patient walks into your dental practice

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles from Lisa Newburger, LISW-S. Following the enormous feedback on her first two articles, I believe dentists and dental team members are very interested in seeing things from a patient’s perspective, and that’s exactly what my friend Lisa does with her writing. She has never worked a day in a dental practice, but has spent plenty of time in the reception area and the dental chair as a patient. With that in mind, here is her view (as a patient) of what could be going wrong at the front desk.

Read Lisa's article on, "The top 10 things patients think when they are sitting in your dental chair."

Read Lisa's article on, "The top 10 things you can think but never say to a dental patient."

1. Being ignored because the front desk worker is taking a personal call

Of all the nerve! Her back is turned to the patient, and she is trying to talk discreetly into the phone … but the call goes on and on for eternity. The receptionist doesn’t even acknowledge the patient to take a seat or sign in (this drives me absolutely nuts). The very first thing a patient (new or “seasoned”) sees in your practice is the person working at the front desk. If he or she doesn’t acknowledge a patient’s presence, how excited is that patient going to be to be there … or come back? Ignoring someone is the worst form of branding for your practice. It means you simply don’t care.

Solution: Put down the phone for a moment. Put a smile on your face, acknowledge that I am here, make me feel welcome, and point me to the Keurig machine.

2. Walking into a dental office to find no one at the front desk

Sometimes the front glass is pulled tightly shut. As a patient, you don’t know what to do. You wonder if everyone is at lunch and your appointment is forgotten. Then, other patients arrive and the feeling of awkwardness grows. You get a little anxious that you were here first, but you are the farthest away from the window when the receptionist finally returns. It’s not pretty, but it happens.

Solution: Make sure there is a sign that is visible, telling the patient you have stepped away from the desk. If you can, ask someone else to cover the front as you run to the restroom or grab your lunch. You are human, but patients want to see someone at the desk when they walk in.

3. Witnessing a knockdown fight between the receptionist and another team member

I am being overdramatic, right? Or am I? I am guessing there are “certain personalities” in your office (perhaps you fondly referred to as the control freak, the slacker, the wimp, and the mean girl). Patients have witnessed the gossiping, eye rolling, and/or condescending talk from one “supposed” professional to the next. If that happens when I am there, it’s a deal-breaker for me. If you don’t play nicely, I don’t want to play in your sandbox … and I sure don’t want you working on my mouth!

Solution: Never show disrespect to a fellow team member in front of a patient. We are not blind or deaf. Even if we are reading a magazine or playing with our phones, don’t be fooled … we are eavesdropping on everything. Once you lose your patient’s respect, you have lost that patient.

4. Seeing the receptionist playing solitaire on the computer

To me, there is something disturbing to watch employees playing games or playing with their phones at work. It makes me think that the dental practice isn’t doing really well and there is time to kill. My other thought is that things aren’t getting taken care of, which means there might be a hassle with my billing or scheduling (yes, I’m already worried about something even before I am in your chair). A brand is everything from how you look to how you act. Verbal communication is only a part of it.

Solution: Maybe it is slow in the office. Clean your desk. Keep the computer screen angled so the patients can’t see it. Look busy. As a patient, I want to know that things get done and there is organization.

5. Walking into a waiting room full of patients and thinking, “I am never going to get out of here”

The dentist is running late. The hygienist is running late. Anyone behind door number one is running late. The front desk is in the crosshairs when this happens, having to keep the patients calm and informed in the waiting room. That can be a dangerous job!

Solution: If you know that your office is running late, call patients and let them know. This may not be your way to do things, but it is respectful of the patient’s time … and will be greatly appreciated.

Remember, your front desk is critical to operate and maintain a smoothly run practice. If you have had experiences like these and overcome them in your practice, e-mail me at Let me know your suggestions for best practices. I would love to hear them.