Are you annoying your patients?

April 10, 2012
Renee Knight
Issue 4

If a patient walks out of your practice annoyed, that patient likely isn’t coming back. And these patients may not even tell you they’re irritated with you or one of your team members; they may smile and nod until they can finally leave, all the while thinking, “man, I need to find a new dentist.”

If a patient walks out of your practice annoyed, that patient likely isn’t coming back.

And these patients may not even tell you they’re irritated with you or one of your team members; they may smile and nod until they can finally leave, all the while thinking, “man, I need to find a new dentist.”

Of course this is the last thing you want to happen at the end of an appointment. The goal is for patients to walk out of your practice ready to sing your praises to family and friends, but that isn’t going to happen if you’re annoying patients during appointments. Here’s a breakdown of some common patient annoyances and what you and your team can do to avoid them.

Unpleasant smells. Too much cologne or the lingering smell of cigarette smoke on a team member’s hands are sure ways to annoy your patients, warns Penny Limoli, owner of the Reed Limoli Group. Limoli talked with patients about what irritates them most about their dentist and strong smells we definitely on the list. Nobody wants to deal with the taste of cigarette smoke in his or her mouth, and even though you think patients can’t smell it on you, they can. And if you’re telling your patients not to smoke, you and your team members probably shouldn’t be smoking either.

Limoli points out that overpowering cologne or air fresheners also can be unpleasant. Cologne should be worn in moderation, if at all. Remember some patients may be allergic, and taking in your hygienist’s favorite perfume is the last thing they want to do during their visit to your office.

Unpredictable fees. Patients like to know what to expect, especially when it involves money. Limoli emphasizes that if your fees go up every time they come to your office, they’re not going to be happy. They’re also not going to be happy if you tell them their dentistry will cost X amount, only for them to find out later it’s going to cost them more because you forgot to factor something in.

Kathleen O’Donnell, director of consulting for Jameson Management, says that before telling a patient how much the treatment is going to cost, take the time to figure out exactly what the final bill will be so there aren’t any surprises. Put together a formal financial agreement that takes everything into account, including what insurance will cover and what it won’t.

“Also suggest the patient put down a deposit on the treatment if it’s significant,” O'Donnell said. “Tell the patient there will be an initial deposit of $500 and ask how they would like to take care of that. The patient has a commitment at that point and clearly understands everything he or she will be obligated to pay.”

This is especially important with emergency patients. Make sure they have the time needed to complete the procedure, and that a written financial agreement has been put together so they know exactly what the treatment will cost.

Running late. Your time is valuable, and so is your patients’ time. Patients aren’t going to be happy if they rush to get to their appointment on time, only to sit in your reception area or in the treatment room waiting and waiting for their appointment to finally begin.

Don’t assume waiting is something patients expect as part of the deal when they go to the dentist. Take steps to let them know you understand their lives are busy and they don’t have time to waste sitting around.

To avoid this, O'Donnell suggests timing procedures to be more accurate. Estimate average times and then literally time appointments with a stopwatch three to four times and use the averages. If you’re familiar with a patient and you know Mrs. Jones has difficulties and will most likely take extra time, add on a unit of time to be more accurate.

Don’t double book. Too many offices squeeze in unrealistic numbers of procedures, and that often includes using three or four treatment rooms to bank people. When that happens, everyone ends up waiting and getting more irritated by the minute.

Instead of creating a stressful situation that leads to unhappy patients, O'Donnell recommends dovetail scheduling. Based on your averages, block a certain amount of time off for specific procedures, making it easier for you to schedule in smaller procedures throughout the day.

“It may be a bit of an adjustment, but it’s a way of creating sanity for the doctor and the team for how they approach each day,” O'Donnell said.  “And it’s also so kind to patients because people don’t end up waiting unrealistic times.”

Talking too much. Whether you’re talking to the patient or your assistant, too much chatting can put your patients on edge. Limoli cautions that patients don’t like it when you stop working in their mouth so you can talk to them or ask them questions while you have an instrument in their mouth.

O’Donnell adds that even though you have a good rapport with your team members and want to chat with them during the workday, doing so while you have a patient in the chair isn’t the right time. This can often make them feel invisible. While you don’t want to work in silence, it’s important to remember the patient is there and may not be comfortable listening to your inside jokes.

Using your patient as a guinea pig. If you’re training a new graduate assistant, don’t just assume your patient is OK with that new assistant making their temporary crown, O'Donnell says. Because the assistant is learning, it’s going to take longer to make that temp, and the patient may not have an extra 45 minutes that day. The best way to handle this is to ask the patient if he or she is OK if the appointment takes a little longer because you’re training a new assistant. Some won’t have the time to spare but others will be happy to help, and even happier that you respected their time and asked rather than assuming they wouldn’t mind.

Sending out coupons. Everyone loves coupons and saving money, but no one wants to see a promotion in their inbox for a treatment they’ve already started.  Make sure you know what treatments your patients are receiving, and if they’re already 3 months into their Invisalign treatment, don’t send them coupons for $1,000 off. But if you do, Limoli stresses that you better be prepared to honor it.

Disciplining your team in front of a patient. No matter what you may have discovered about a team member, never reprimand that team member in front of a patient, says Dr. Brad Guyton, Chief Operating Officer for Jameson Management. Your patients don’t want to hear about it; in fact it just makes them uncomfortable.

“That’s difficult for patients to hear,” Dr. Guyton said. “We are advocates of always building your team up. If the patient hears the doctor complain that 'this is not the temp I was expecting or that is not a great impression, that’s an awkward thing for the patient to digest.’ The visit always goes smoother when the patient hears the doctor reward and appreciate a job well done. Constructive criticism must be addressed privately.”

Getting too technical. When you’re discussing diagnosis and treatment options, patients do not want to hear about all the technical aspects associated with their case. They just want to know what the problem is, how you’re going to fix it, if it’s going to hurt and if it’s within their budget, Dr. Guyton says. Too much technical information will often overwhelm them and may keep them from pursuing the treatment they need.

“We often recommend dentists to stop talking and give patients only the necessary information they need to make an informed decision. Do not overload them with technical speak that isn’t necessary,” he said. “While we support all aspects of comprehensive informed consent, we must remember it does the patient no good if it isn't understandable.”

“We ask dentists to be quiet and give patients the information they need to know to make an informed decision but not overload them with technical stuff that isn’t necessary,” he said. “We’re big fans of informed consent but it needs to be understandable.”

Not having flexible payment options. You just broke down the treatment plan to the patient and talked with the patient about the cost. The patient is ready to go forward, but can’t afford the treatment without help third party financing. According to O’Donnell, having this option is key to helping patients afford the treatment they need, without your office turning into a bank. If you don’t offer this type of option, chances are patients are going to go elsewhere to get the treatment they need.

Personal grooming. Seems like a no brainer, but you have to remember you’re working in people’s mouths and you have to keep yourself presentable. Keep your nose clean and your nose hair trimmed, Limoli suggests, and dress appropriately for a dental practice. And if you or a team member has a cold, it may be a good idea to stay home. Patients don’t like the idea of someone who’s walking around with a cough and a runny nose working in their mouths.

Using disease as art. It’s important for you to educate your patients about what can happen to their mouths if they don’t take care of them, but Limoli advises that putting up diseased mouths in your waiting area isn’t the way to do it. Those are best suited for patient education presentations. Decorate your walls with pictures of beautiful smiles you’ve helped created to motivate your patients and show them what’s possible if you work as a team.

The waiting area should be used to convey positive messages about density, O’Donnell recommends. Don’t let your waiting area fill up with outdated magazines. Instead supply it with entertaining as well as educational reading materials.

Keeping your patients as happy as possible is a great way to not only improve your practice, but to improve your relationship with your patients and their treatment outcomes. So if you or your staff members are doing anything that might be annoying your patients, take a step back and make some changes. Everyone involved will benefit.