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What Patients Want: Understanding Your Patient Base and Adapting to Meet Their Needs

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Article

Clinicians may need to adjust the way they operate and the services they offer to ensure new and existing patients keep making appointments.

What Dental Patients Want: Understanding Your Patient Base and Adapting to Meet Their Needs

JACK F / STOCK.ADOBE.COM

There have always been obstacles preventing some patients from visiting a dentist. But as times change, so do patient expectations and so do some of the obstacles. Sure, some individuals are still afraid of a possibly painful dental procedure, and many are worried about costs. But today’s patients have other areas of concern. Some of these deal with newer demands in terms of office hours, communication and appointment methods, practice appearance, cleanliness, and even whether the latest technology is in use.

Naomi Cooper Hochman, president of Minoa Marketing and dental industry expert at Genly, says clinicians need to be aware of what their current and potential patients expect from a dental practice. Yes, the dental care they receive is important. But just as important to many is the overall experience.

“I hear dentists always talk about the quality of care, that they offer such high-quality dentistry,” Hochman says. “But really, it’s important to consider the entirety of the patient experience—the experience that they have with your staff, with your physical location, and with your website.”

The overall patient experience can be improved by offering flexible office hours and making the appointment process as easy as possible. Updated websites and modern methods of communication also are musts, Hochman says.

“All of the online communication is a baseline expectation now. Everything from being able to make an appointment on the website or via Zocdoc or through some sort of portal is just a baseline expectation of patients these days, or most certainly for them to be able to text you or email you and get a very quick response,” she adds.

Patients being able to reach out at whatever time is convenient for them is key. What’s also important is for practices to understand the best methods to use when they’re doing the reaching out.

“An email is even sort of passé at this point—it feels like no one checks their email anymore,” Hochman says. “Another thing I would really emphasize is that voicemail is essentially dead. There’s nothing wrong with calling, but don’t bother leaving a message—send a text instead.”

This is where texting steps in as the preferred method for most of today’s patients. If the practice is going to do appointment reminders, they should be via text as opposed to email or phone calls.

“You should just be texting people. It’s more efficient for your team, it can even be automated, and it’s what your patients are going to be expecting,” Hochman advises. Elderly patients, on the other hand, most likely will expect phone calls and even voicemail messages.

Stacie Coates is the technical product manager at Planet DDS, which offers cloud-based practice management software and imaging software solutions for dentists. She says technology can play a key role in assisting dental practices in meeting the needs of today’s patients.

“We’re seeing the continuing trend of patient-centered care, driven in large part by the consumerism of dentistry. Technology, specifically cloud-based practice management solutions, can provide a framework for practices to meet patients where they are. When you have a centralized source of truth for your data, you’re able to offer the personalized experience that today’s patients have come to expect,” Coates says.

She added, “Because the practice management solution impacts virtually all aspects of a practice, from communication, patient education, and case acceptance, to billing and payments, it can transform the entire patient experience. As patients move through age brackets, they will naturally have changing needs, so practices can help educate them with relevant and timely oral health care information. This education process helps patients understand the benefits of earlier treatment options.”

Modern Websites
Fifteen to 20 years ago, dental consultants and marketing companies had to convince dentists to create a website. Now, everyone has a website. But some may need convincing to make sure their site is current and user friendly for patients.

Not only should your website look great and provide pertinent details about the staff and your procedures, but it should be easy for patients to navigate and to contact the practice with questions or to make an appointment.

Another big plus is having brief videos that explain services as well as postoperative instructions. Letting patients watch a video at their convenience that explains postoperative steps and medications is much more effective than sending them out with a piece of paper that may get lost or left in the car—where it’s of no use in the middle of the night when the patient is wondering what to do or which medication to take.

“When it comes to postop care, for each common procedure, record a 60-second video for patients on what to expect in the first 24 hours and another for the next 72 hours—this will save a lot of phone calls to your front desk,” Hochman says. “When a patient is checking out after a procedure and they’re nervous and maybe they’re still in a little bit of pain or they’re numb, they’re preoccupied, and perhaps not completely receptive to your instructions.”

These nervous patients may not recall if you suggested Tylenol or Advil, they may lose a piece of paper you hand them with instructions, and if you tell them verbally, they may not remember.

“Texting patients a video link or even a link to your website where you have the postop instructions is much more effective,” she adds.

Hochman suggests you audit your website every few years to make sure your site is delivering everything you need. Check out colleagues’ websites and make a note of the ones you like. Are they offering more to their patients than your site is?

“Call whoever designed your website back then and get a quote,” she suggests. “Google who their top competitors are and get a quote from them. Your website probably needs to be refreshed at least every 5 years. It may have been awesome in 2015, but it’s not awesome in 2023. You may be missing some key features and capabilities.”

Hey, Good Looking
Many of today’s patients are more into esthetics, both when it comes to smiles and to the dental practice itself.

If you aren’t offering cosmetic services such as whitening, you may be missing out on a whole population of potential patients looking to look better. And if your reception area and/or your operatories look outdated or dirty, you will surely turn off some patients and lose out on revenue opportunities.

“[Millennials] are much more into esthetics than any other generation before them. They are the social media generation and they care about how everything looks; everything is curated,” Hochman says. “Everything needs to look perfect. And so not only is that the case with their teeth, which is great because [you can] upsell them on comprehensive care, but it’s also from the perspective of what your practice looks like.”

Overcome 3 Obstacles to Meet Patients’ Needs

By Carrie Webber, owner of The Jameson Group

Great customer service answers the question: How easy do you make it for a patient to get what they want or need? When practices consider how they should adapt to meet the needs of their patients, they are ultimately exploring ways to elevate customer service.

The American Dental Association’s Health Policy Institute discovered in a survey of US households that the top 3 reasons patients do not visit the dentist or do not proceed with treatment are cost, fear, and lack of convenience. If you are seeking ways to elevate your value in the eyes of your patients, start with those 3 obstacles.

1. Cost

It is important to consistently provide a variety of financial options to help patients cover the cost of care. Patient financing is an obvious choice to have on the table for patients. Patient financing companies such as CareCredit provide QR codes that patients can easily scan with their mobile device, treatment calculators to review estimated monthly payments, and more. Treatment coordinators and financial coordinators who are well trained in providing financial options to patients can help patients get what they want and need in a way that is financially comfortable for them.

2. Fear

According to the Cleveland Clinic, 36% of the US population fears dental treatment. Dismissing this anxiety over treatment is extremely detrimental to your practice and your patients. Ask the question, “If I were an anxious patient in my practice, what would I need to feel safe and comfortable with treatment?” Patients process information by what they see, hear, and feel. Take more steps to communicate clearly, give patients time to communicate concerns, provide amenities such as headphones and blankets, and consider options such as sedation if it can be executed safely and well.

3. Lack of convenience

The final obstacle addresses time. Consider seeing fewer patients per day, providing more dentistry per patient (when and where appropriate), and scheduling intentionally. If you find yourself running behind schedule, you are diminishing your value in your patients’ eyes. Don’t make them wait. Work on your scheduling process, refine the time management of your patient appointments and be consistent.

In a recent study, Accenture reports that 64% of consumers wish that companies would respond more quickly to meet their changing needs. The takeaway? All of those efforts you put into elevating your communication and connection with patients pay off: text to pay, 2-way texting, electronic treatment plans, patient financing, hiring a treatment coordinator for your practice, intraoral camera and scanner utilization, more intentional communication skills, taking time to explain treatment more clearly to patients. All of these build value and trust with your patients.

Help overcome patients’ main obstacles of cost, fear, and lack of convenience. Remember, great customer service helps patients get what they want or need. If you don’t know what your patients want, maybe you need to start by asking them.

Patients don’t want to see stained ceiling tiles when they’re lying in the chair, and they expect that you’re taking care of the dust bunnies in the corner. Your bathroom should smell good; they expect a spa-like experience.

“It doesn’t have to be high end, necessarily. You don’t need gold mirrors, but patients expect your practice to be clean and modern and not institutional,” Hochman says. “It could be the best dentist performing the best dentistry, but if it feels like your practice is still in the 1970s, that’s not a good thing.”

Hochman says one practice not far from where she lives recently had a makeover that has had a big impact on how patients feel, and it wasn’t a special fancy, expensive update. Fresh paint, new equipment, and updated linoleum made a world of difference. Removing the old dark wood furniture from the reception area also helped.

“It’s not fancy. It’s still basic, but they really updated it—the entire practice looks clean, updated, and a little Ikea-ish. The reception area is modern yet comfortable now, instead of giving dated living room vibes. It doesn’t look like they spent a ton of money, but it creates a much better impression,” she says.

That Spa Experience
Who doesn’t want to stream their favorite shows or listen to a podcast? Today’s busy patients might be more likely to visit your practice if they can be entertained while sitting in the dental chair. WIFI available in your practice is another perk that may attract more patients.

While she was having a Zoom! Whitening procedure recently, Hochman was handed a TV remote and asked if she preferred Netflix or Amazon Prime. These kinds of things let people know you respect their time. “They can listen to their podcasts, or they can watch their Netflix show that they fell asleep in the middle of last night,” Hochman says. “You’re respecting their time, enabling them to use technology, and you’re showing that you’re up with the times.

“They don’t want to feel like they went to the dentist and they just killed an hour or an hour and a half in the chair. They want to feel like they got 2 things done. It also makes the time go faster. Give them those things and their experience will be more pleasant,” Hochman says.

Technology
Intraoral cameras, intraoral scanners, and cone beam CT (CBCT) systems can instantly provide patients with much more information and visuals than was possible 2 decades ago, when Y2K was a much more popular acronym than CBCT.

The information these technologies provide can both wow patients and assist in providing better oral care. If your patients hear others talk about the cool, great things their dentist has, that you don’t have, they may look elsewhere to take advantage of these technologies. This also applies to recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI)-supported solutions designed to improve both the patient and practitioner experience.

“We know that younger demographics, in particular, prefer the ease of texting for scheduling appointments, completing forms, and even making payments,” Coates says. “Dental practices can also utilize AI-analyzed images to help patients visualize and understand diagnoses so they can accept treatment with more confidence.”

With more reliable and standardized data, practices can improve the billing process for patients and even integrate payment processing through their practice management solution, she says. Overall, having an all-in-1 solution helps practices more readily meet patient needs via a personalized experience, ultimately improving patient satisfaction and retention.

Additionally, allowing patients to visualize their mouths and their treatments via intraoral scans, intraoral photographs, CBCT imaging, digital x-rays, and other technologies not only helps educate them but also increases patient acceptance.

Patient Financing
Without a doubt, treatment costs can be prohibitive to many patients. Because of this, practices should cater to those who may need a little help covering their costs, making sure satisfactory financing options are available to ensure they don’t avoid necessary treatment.

Solutions such as CareCredit [see sidebar] and Sunbit can help patients pay for treatments rather than hold off until things get worse.

Sunbit’s Smile Now, Pay-over-time solution for the dental market offers patients the flexibility to pay for dental services over 6, 12, 18, 24, and even up to 72 months.

“We allow folks to get what they need today and pay over time,” explains Jay Letwat, vice president, Dental Division, at Sunbit. “You go to the dentist, they give you a comprehensive oral exam and they list the things you need to get done and there’s the dollar amount associated with them and the treatment…. And the patient might be a little shellshocked, right?”

In this scenario, Letwat says the patient may skip the recommended treatments all together or agree to just a small portion of the treatment plan, especially if something is required to alleviate any pain. But in the long run, delaying certain treatments can lead to heightened woes down the road for patients.

“Unfortunately, because there are other things that needed to be taken care, the patient [only] gets what he needs to get done and walks out the door,” Letwat says. “Then the patient comes back in 9 months or 12 months or 18 months and it’s far worse. It’s likely far more painful and the treatment may be now have much longer recovery periods.”

Patient financing solutions can create customized offerings to cater to the needs of patients. Sunbit, for example, is working to educate dental practices and their staff on how quick and easy the approval process can be, and how to communicate with patients up front to avoid the shellshocked scenarios of expensive treatment plans.

Sunbit staff attend trade shows and conduct webinars regularly to help educate the dental industry on what they’re doing to help both patients and clinicians. “We’re able to uniquely identify many different options that work for the patient, because you don't want the patient to feel pressured into an option that is not good for them,” Letwat says. “We work with the practice to help them to grow, and we work to help the practice make sure the patient who walks in the door is always comfortable. It’s a very quick process; it’s like a Starbucks drive through solution.”

Teledentistry
Although it is not possible to pull a tooth or fill a cavity virtually, teledentistry can play a big role in assisting oral health care and in helping cater to patients, both young and old. Using teledentistry technology, patients can meet with a dentist at a time and location that is most convenient for them.

“People want their health care like they want their Amazon packages delivered, you know, clicking in your bed at night ordering it and it shows up the next day,” says Leah Sigler, president of The TeleDentists. “But it’s not going to be that simple, obviously. What I like to say about dentistry is people fear 2 things: how much it’s going to cost and how badly it’s going to hurt. Those are the 2 main factors. I believe that why people don’t go to the dentist when they have the opportunity.”

Having a conversation with a dental professional on a screen versus face to face is such a great way to melt those barriers, Sigler says. It’s a great way to let patients connect with oral health specialists.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had patients say, ‘Oh, I was so scared, but now I’m ready. Let’s do this’,” she adds. As for the dental offices, using teledentistry is like opening a virtual chair to increase revenue.

“You’re not wasting PPE [personal protective equipment], you’re not wasting chair time for the doctor or the assistant or the front desk,” Sigler explains. “It’s filling in those spots, especially with cancellation rates what they are today, and it’s creating revenue because it is a billable code.”

Most PPO dental insurances and even some Medicaid insurances now are reimbursing for teledentistry, according to Sigler, who adds that it encourages patients to come in and get actual dental treatment done.

Sigler says there are 3 pillars to teledentistry, starting with educating the patient about what is going on in their mouth and possible remedies. The second pillar deals with availability, especially when you’re talking about a patient who is in pain. Although dental practices are often not open at night or on the weekends, teledentistry can be there to help always answer questions and in many cases assist with prescriptions, if needed.

“The final pillar we recommend is triage,” Sigler adds. “Not all our patients need hands-on work. Believe it or not, I think 17% said that their problem was resolved with a telephoto consultation and they did not need hands-on work.”

With the technology, teledentists can talk to patients about nonemergency topics such as whitening instructions, aligner questions, and home care concerns. But if the patient needs hands on care, “you can put them in your chair filling up that space that was canceled by Mrs Smith, or send them to the appropriate specialist if you know that patient is going to need a root canal or extraction,” Sigler says.

Practices don’t need an emergency phone number anymore. They just need a button on their website that allows patients to talk to dentists in real time. “That is such a powerful tool for the practice for the patients,” Sigler adds. “Also, [they can] Google search a dentist right now online…. There’s a little button that says if they’re offering telehealth or teleservices. Practices can say yes and increase their SEO.”

AI has been utilized in the development of teledentistry platforms. The technology allows patients to remotely connect with dentists, enabling consultations, diagnoses, and even treatment planning without the need for in-person visits. Teledentistry—which can expand access to dental care—is one of many solutions available today to help practitioners meet the evolving needs of current and potential patients.

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