The myth of the perfect new patient

March 21, 2012

Most dentists I talk to have an image in their heads of the ideal new patient. Not only does this person come in to the practice needing extensive care, he or she also understands the value of dentistry and has therefore budgeted the money to start comprehensive treatment right away. On the surface, this seems to make sense-after all, patients with high need and a high dental IQ offer the best opportunity for revenue, right? Not quite.

Most dentists I talk to have an image in their heads of the ideal new patient. Not only does this person come in to the practice needing extensive care, he or she also understands the value of dentistry and has therefore budgeted the money to start comprehensive treatment right away. On the surface, this seems to make sense-after all, patients with high need and a high dental IQ offer the best opportunity for revenue, right? Not quite.

Don’t get me wrong, if you could find a steady source of these motivated, educated patients, it would be very good for business. But focusing your efforts on chasing these elusive consumers ultimately will take your focus off the most abundant opportunities in dentistry. Namely, everyone else.

Potential dental patients generally fall into one of four categories. To see what I mean, take a look at the chart on the right. On the x-axis is a patient’s “Dental IQ,” and on the y-axis is the patient’s “Dental Need.”

The players

The first major group is shown at the bottom left-people with low dental need and low dental IQ. You know them as Avoiders. Because Avoiders don’t have a good understanding of preventive dentistry, they’re likely to keep putting off dental care until their need increases (until they’re in pain).

Sliding up the y-axis, you have Emergencies. They’ve been avoiding seeing a dentist for years, but suddenly their dental need increases. Whether this is because of a toothache or some other immediate problem, they realize they need a dentist.

Moving along the x-axis, we find Procrastinators. These consumers have a high dental IQ (that is, they know they should see a dentist regularly), but because their perceived dental need is low, they’ve put it off-potentially for years. Procrastinators are those folks who know better, but just can’t seem to get around to it.

Which brings us to the last category. These are the coveted consumers who have a high dental IQ and a high need (always high because they know they need to see a dentist regardless of whether they have a problem). But here’s the secret: These people already have a dentist! If they understand the value of dentistry and perceive a high need, they are almost certainly another dentist’s patient. And for the most part, they’re not looking for a new dental practice unless they move out of the area.

The point?

The real opportunity for growth lies in those first three quadrants. New patients who have engaged in some level of neglect typically need more dental care-which translates to more long-term production. And by educating patients about the benefits of regular dentistry and the transformative power of your services, you can turn them into high need/high IQ patients in your practice.

It’s all too easy to make the mistake of judging Avoiders, Emergencies and Procrastinators harshly. But they are not bad people. In fact, they’re most people. Remember, it’s human nature to avoid things you see as unpleasant-and for the average American, that includes dentistry. There also is a pervasive lack of understanding about the importance of oral health in this country, and we in the dental industry need to be careful not to be too critical. Rather, we need to look at this as an opportunity to change people’s perception.

Imagine, for example, an emergency patient who calls your office late one night with throbbing pain. Some doctors prefer not to treat this kind of patient, assuming he’ll be just a one-time visit or lack the ability to pay. But realize that most Emergencies are just Avoiders who suddenly developed a strong reason to call.

The most successful dentists I know are happy to treat emergency patients because they understand that if you give someone in pain a positive dental experience, you can create a lifelong patient. That may be the experience that changes his view of dentistry-the moment when it finally clicks. And when you explain that you are going to get him out of his immediate pain, but you really need to see him Monday morning to ensure issues like these aren’t forming in other areas of his mouth, you’re starting him on the path to understanding and valuing dental care. And that’s what it’s all about.

Dentistry offers boundless potential for growth thanks to the millions of Americans who do not yet have a regular dentist. The secret is to shift your focus from finding the perfect patient to creating that ideal experience with everyone who calls your practice or sits in your chair.

About the author

Fred Joyal is CEO of 1-800-DENTIST and author of Everything is Marketing: The Ultimate Strategy for Dental Practice Growth. He can be reached at goaskfred.com.