Just like your pets, dental patients need training for your practice to flourish

October 18, 2014

Ever since I was a little girl, my life has been filled with the joy of having cats, dogs, and birds as pets … but with this joy comes a lot of training, stern discipline, and rewards for behavior. Most of my pets have come from rescue shelters or from friends, and that means they walk into my life with bad habits or behaviors that just aren’t going to fly in my house. When we commit to bring a new pet into our lives, we also take on the commitment of training.

You might be thinking, “How does this relate to the dental practice?” I believe that training our pets is exactly like training our patients.

Do you dream of a practice where patients pay their portion prior to treatment or on the day of service? Do you dream of having that perfect schedule where patients keep their appointments? Do you dream of never having to make another confirmation call again? Do you dream of having the new patient information forms before the patient walks through the door? Whatever your dream is in your practice, you can create it. When coaching office managers, financial administrators, and hygiene coordinators who feel stuck implementing change, I have to remind them of this . . . you train patient behavior just like you train your pets to do what you want them to do. Yes, you train your patients how they should treat your practice. You do it every day without even knowing it. You do it unconsciously because it is easier or because it is what the patient wants and you want the patient to be happy.

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If your new puppy pooped on the floor, you would continue to reinforce the correct behavior until he or she learned, right? So if your patients are pooping on your financial or scheduling floor, you need to reinforce correct behavior and use language skills to correct the behavior.

As a scheduling coordinator, your primary responsibility is to keep the schedule full. I get that. However, you also must create a schedule that is productive for the team and does not create stress. Let’s say, for example, you have an opening in your hygiene schedule for tomorrow afternoon that you have been trying to fill. Suddenly, your patient scheduled for this afternoon calls you and says, “I have to take my son to soccer practice this afternoon and I can’t keep my appointment.” Your first reaction would be to say, “Oh, you got lucky. I had a patient cancel for tomorrow. Can you come in then?” Don’t do it! Instead, you need to say, “My next opening in the afternoon will be on (give them a date about three weeks out). Would you like me to call you if I get something sooner?” Then, let that person stew over it for a couple of hours. When the patient calls back, say, “I just got an opening in our schedule tomorrow afternoon and you are first on my list. Would you like to take it?” Congratulations! You have just filled your opening and you have trained that patient’s behavior for future cancellations.

Emergencies are probably one of the most disruptive events during the day, so discussing in your morning meeting where your scheduling team can place an emergency patient is extremely important. If your team has determined that 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. are the times for today’s emergency visits, you must stick to it. When a patient calls with a toothache and you respond, “I am sorry you are in pain. We can see you today at 11:30 or 3. Which would work better for you?” You will usually get the response, “I can’t leave work so it will have to be after 5.” If you put the patient at 5, you will create stress with your team. Ask the patient if he or she can take their lunch break at 11:30 or can leave a little early from work to make the afternoon time. If he or she can’t, it is not an emergency.

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New patients might be the toughest to train. They come in with all kinds of bad habits that we need to rid them of and still make them purr with happiness. Usually it is about insurance and having to pay at the time of service. This all starts with that first phone call. There are consultants in the dental industry who teach offices not to discuss insurance or payment on the first phone call. However, as a consumer and a practice management coach, I feel keeping open lines of communication and honesty is always the best policy. When you surprise patients about money, you will lose their trust. Here are some verbal skills I have found to be effective and compassionate.

“Do you have dental benefits that will help you with this appointment?”

"Before we schedule your appointment, we will always review the costs of treatment so you know what to bring in that day.”

“Your portion of today’s visit is $ ____” . . . .then pause.

If you don’t talk to your new patients about money and what is expected from them, your accounts receivable report will look like a big poopy mess and it will be a lot more difficult to backtrack. Then, let’s be honest, it would have been easier to just start off by training your patient from the beginning.

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It’s all about the conversations you have every day with your patients and learning how to guide the patient in a direction you want them to go. I am not advocating saying “our policy is” or “you will be charged a fee if you …” I encourage you to talk to your patients how you would want an office to talk to you.