HR Hot Topic: Communication in the dental practice ... Ignore patients at your own risk

February 27, 2015
Ginny Hegarty, SPHR
Ginny Hegarty, SPHR

It’s 10:15 on a warm spring morning, yet in Jayne’s dental practice the heat is on! Jayne is the administrative assistant in a popular dental practice in town. While it may be lovely outside, Jayne can feel the heat of the two patients’ eyes glaring at her, searing laser-like heat focused right on her! These patients had 10:00 appointments and they have been waiting for 15 minutes. They are annoyed and on the verge of full-on anger.

This I know for sure: Patients don’t mind waiting near as much as they mind being ignored. Two of the best internal marketing strategies you and your team can initiate are a commitment to:

1. On-time performance

2. Top-notch communication between the team and the patient when something stands in the way of meeting #1 goal.

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One of the game-changer communication strategies I teach teams is the 5-Minute Rule. The administrative assistant is responsible to monitor the reception room and stay fully aware of who is waiting, when they were scheduled and when five minutes has passed since their scheduled appointment time. At the 5-minute mark, the administrative assistant [AA] physically walks to the clinical area and makes eye contact with her patient’s provider or provider’s assistant. She then holds us one open hand showing all five fingers to signal she is using on the 5-minute rule. The clinical assistant responds according to this guide:

1 finger = we’re be done in a minute or two

2 fingers = we will need about 3-6 minutes

3 fingers = another 10 minutes

5 fingers = we’re going to be a while, initiate Plan B

The AA can then return to the patient in the reception area, acknowledge and apologize to the patient for the delay, and give the patient an idea of how much longer the wait will be. Most patients are very grateful for the update and will understand up to about a 15 or 20 minutes delay. Plan B offers the patient the option of making a call to adjust their schedule or rescheduling their appointment if necessary.

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The teams with the best on-time performance realize that it takes the entire team to make this happen:

Everyone commits to arriving on time and being prepared to start the day on time.

At the morning huddle, the hygiene and assisting teams identify the hygiene check windows of opportunity and create a plan to keep the all providers running on time.

The administrative team manages the reception area and the clock.

The team reviews any missteps and discusses plans to avoid the same issues in the future.

On-time performance is a core value, a point of pride. The team tracks, reviews and analysis the results on a regular basis.

The best marketing and practice growth strategies create a reason for patients to think of you, talk about you, and refer their family, friends and coworkers. Everyone is busy these days and has very little patience for poor customer service. Your strategy is to get patients talking about how their dentist respects their time and doesn’t keep them waiting. When the unexpected or emergency situation happens, give patients further evidence of your appreciation and respect for their time through your service recovery initiatives. Happy patients are loyal patients that refer others.

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As the patient impacted by the delay is leaving, I also recommend that you have a service recovery strategy in place to reward the patient for their patience and understanding. Give your patient a small gift card to the local coffee shop or ice cream parlor so your patient leaves remembering your kindness and respect for their time, rather than the delay.

It’s often said that an unhappy client tells five others, while a happy client tells one. Aim for making patients happy by running on time. When you hit the inevitable speed bump that slows you down, handle it well and patients will still talk about your great care and service… while they enjoy their next Caramel Macchiato with whipped cream!

Make the 5-minute rule one the HR Top Topics at your next team meeting and reap the rewards.