To Maximize Patient Satisfaction, Take a Team Approach


As a dentist, you may have a great team of people working around you. But are those great people working together as a team? The answer to that question can make all the difference when it comes to building and maintaining a loyal client base. Continue below for a Q&A with consultant Shelly Ryan.

Shelly Ryan, RDA, has spent more than three decades working in the dental industry, both in a dental practice and as a trainer and consultant. She says dental practices need to ensure that their entire team — from the receptionist to the dentist to the billing department — needs to understand the roles of each team member in order to ensure the patient has a successful and satisfactory experience, start to finish.


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Ryan, a consultant for Advanced Practice Management, will lead a course next month on “The Team Approach to Dentistry” for the Wichita District Dental Society. She recently shared some of her tips for building a strong dental practice team with Dentist’s Money Digest.

DMD: What do you mean when you refer to the “team approach” to dentistry, and how does it differ from a non-team approach?

Shelly Ryan, RDA: I started out as an assistant, and at one of my first offices, the administrative person had some health issues, and I covered her position. It was during that time I realized how little the clinical team understood what happens at the front desk, and the administrative team didn't have an understanding of what was going on in the clinical area. This caused confusion for patients. The team approach is simply developing systems, protocols and verbiage with the entire team regardless of their position. In short, the entire team understands how and why a system should work, as well as what each individual’s role is. When the right hand understands what the left hand is doing, the outcome for the patient and the team is more positive.

DMD: You say patients base their perceptions of a practice on how they feel as opposed to basing perceptions solely on their clinical experience. Why is that, and how should it affect the way a dentist or practice manager approaches her or his job?

SR: Patients don't generally understand dentistry or the language we use, similar to an auto mechanic explaining an engine to the average lay person. What they do understand is trust, compassion, pain, embarrassment and other emotions. The average patient couldn't tell their friend how good the dentist’s margins are, but they can tell them the dentist made them feel comfortable, explained things in a way they could understand, didn't pressure or lecture them, etc. The entire team will build better relationships, and patients will accept dentistry when the focus is on their concerns instead of the clinical reasons the patient should proceed. In many cases, patients don't want to understand how an implant is placed, they simply want to know why it is the best course of treatment for them and how it will positively impact their lives. Recognizing what the patient is experiencing emotionally, and where they are at in regards to accepting their situation, allows the team to converse with the patient in a more caring and individually focused manner. Patients are not just a number or a name.

DMD: How can a dentist tell if their practice is operating well as a team?

SR: I think mainly through growth. When there is a systematic approach to the protocols in the offices, there is less patient and team confusion. A happy team means happy patients. Happy patients refer other patients. I also think scheduled team meetings can help, as they allow interaction between team members the doctor can observe herself.

DMD: How does the team approach make a difference when staff must confront patients with news they might not want to hear (bad clinical news, late bill payments, etc.)?

SR: Every team member plays a role in helping a patient move forward with treatment. The administrators assure they have the insurance information and breakdown of benefits to help clarify financials. They are also in charge of greeting the patient in a manner that helps put the patient at ease: warm and welcoming. Hygienists and assistants help prepare the patient for the likelihood of the doctor’s recommendations through photos, radiographs and verbal discussion. This is the first time the patient hears of the bad news. They are in charge of helping the patient see their situation and prepare for a solution. When the doctor enters for the evaluation, it is the role of the hygienist or assistant to fill in the doctor on exactly what was discussed, in front of the patient. This is the second time the patient hears it.

The doctor then completes the diagnosis. This is the third time the patient hears it. Either the doctor or a clinical team member then commits the patient to care with phrases such as, "You have heard my recommendations, what are your thoughts?" or "Is there anything standing in your way of moving forward? Any thoughts, questions, or concerns I can help with before we get you scheduled?"

The clinical team then assures all treatment and notes regarding why the treatment is necessary, where we recommend the patient begin and how much time will be needed is entered in the chart notes. They then hand off the patient to the administrator with a transition statement: "I'm going to have you stop and talk with Judy about the treatment doctor recommended. She's going to help make sure the finances are comfortable and get you scheduled." The administrator now has all of the information to once again verify and validate the treatment with the patient (this is the fourth time they hear it) and discuss payment options and schedule.

Everyone is on the same page, and this is reassuring to patients and gives each team member confidence when approaching patients with bad news.

DMD: What are some examples of low-hanging fruit — team mistakes that practices can quickly correct?

SR: Be sure you are having team meetings monthly.

Doctors, talk with your team! Tell them what you want and ask them what stands in the way of getting there.

Administrative team, avoid making outgoing calls from 10 minutes to the hour through 10 minutes after the hour. This is the busy time and you want to be available for patient hand-offs.

Verbal skills: Avoid phrases such as " Do you want?" or "Would you like?” Instead try "Let’s" or "The doctor asked that I." Instead, say, "Let's get you scheduled" and, "The doctor asked that I take the necessary X-rays. Let’s get started."

Avoid “Just" — "Just calling to confirm/schedule." It minimizes the importance.

Discover more Dentist’s Money Digest® news here.

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