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A look at how often you should be communicating with current patients, and tips to ensure you’re doing so effectively.
For most dentists, patient communication just is not a priority. Busy clinicians spend their days focused on providing patients with the best service and care possible, while front office team members are tasked with keeping the practice running smoothly. So even though it is critical to practice success, communicating with current patients often does not get the attention it deserves—an oversight that can be costly.
If you are not engaging with current patients on a regular basis, your practice is not staying top of mind. That means patients likely aren’t referring the practice to family and friends and might even be skipping out on appointments. Committing to regular communication will help keep patients thinking about the practice and educated about recommended treatments and overall dental health. And that makes them more likely to schedule treatment, keep appointments, and refer.
Of course, communication needs to be effective and relevant, said Daniel A. Bobrow, CEO of AIM Dental Marketing. He suggests dentists begin with the end in mind, and to think about the objectives they want to achieve with their communication protocol. Is the goal to educate patients, differentiate their practice from others in the area or completely rebrand? How are they currently communicating with patients and how can it be improved? What content do they already have? Communication needs to be overarching and strategic, and can include emails, e-newsletters, text message appointment reminders, surveys, and requests for reviews, for example.
It is also key to communicate with patients via their preferred method. It does not do much good to leave several voicemails to remind patients about their appointment if they rarely check their messages.
“Most dentists have a multi-generational customer base that prefers to communicate differently,” said Kali Geldis, director of communications for patient engagement platform, Weave HQ. “Millennials are much more likely to prefer text messages as a primary means of communication, but that isn't the same for older patients. So how do you accommodate both? Small businesses of all types, not just dentists, are struggling to keep up with the consumer communications revolution. They want unified, simple solutions that are easy to use and can flex to meet their patients where they are.”
Bottom line: Making time for marketing activities like patient communication can be difficult, but it is essential. Finding the right cadence and implementing methods that work best for your patients and your practice will help boost case acceptance, reduce costly broken appointments, increase referrals, and grow your bottom line.
Emails and newsletters: Frequency and relevance are key.
While you want to keep patients thinking about your practice, you do not want to annoy them. Sending too many communications can be bothersome for some patients.
Bobrow recommends thinking about practice communications like a newspaper’s editorial calendar. As part of what he calls a patient nurture sequence, there are some emails you know you are sending well in advance and others you will add to the mix as news comes up.
All new patients should receive an email welcoming them to the practice, for example. Keep other communications in your sequence time agnostic; you do not want to send an email about celebrating 20 years at your office in 2019 to patients in 2022.
Dr Gina Dorfman, co-founder and CEO of YAPI dental software, recommends customizing emails to specific groups of patients for best results. Just like if you send too many emails, if what you send is not relevant patients will get annoyed and might unsubscribe.
For example, toward the end of the year, you can create a custom list of patients who have not used their insurance benefits yet, reminding them to schedule treatment before time runs out, Dr Dorfman says. Patients who have already used all their benefits have no interest in this email and might get annoyed if you send it to them. Back to school promotions are another example. While it is great to send parents reminders to get their kids in before they head back to the classroom, patients without kids do not want to see that type of email in their inbox.
Of course, some communications will go to everyone, Bobrow says, such as special promotions around holidays or announcements about new technology or services the practice offers. The content in these general nurturing emails also can focus on the links between oral and overall health, as that impacts everybody.
“And they don’t need to limit the emails to clinical matters,” Bobrow says. “Dentists should take the opportunity to remind patients they’re human beings and are also contributing members of the community. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask patients to help and to contribute.”
Keep the communication to no more than every 2 weeks, Bobrow says, with a bit higher frequency for new patients. This shows them they are appreciated and will go a long way in keeping them thinking about any treatment options you may have discussed. So, send a couple a week for the first few weeks, something on tips for healing if they had a procedure or an email that simply reminds them that they can call the office with any questions, and then reduce the cadence to once every 2 to 3 weeks.
Newsletters should go out monthly to help keep patients engaged with the practice, says David Means, Director of Demand Generation for PlanetDDS. Means also suggests covering issues around how what happens in the mouth can impact the rest of the body, the importance of maintaining oral health, and how keeping up with their visits will help improve their overall health.
“Newsletters allow you to tell patients about new services you provide that they otherwise wouldn’t know about,” says Ted Teele, CEO of dental and orthodontic digital marketing company Kaleidoscope. “It helps you sell more to existing patients and increases your production.”
Newsletters also can focus on specific topics, Dr Dorfman says, such as patient health during the golden years, pediatrics, and sleep apnea. Maybe you discussed a specific treatment during their last visit, and the newsletter will remind them of their interest. Keep a list of patients who are interested in high-end elective services such as clear aligners and implants and send them newsletters that cover the benefits of these services. When newsletters are targeted and focus on subjects that interest patients, they will be more likely to read them and to act.
“You also can add quizzes, which patients love,” Dr Dorfman says. “Create quizzes to help patients identify themselves as appropriate candidates for services like implants. If they find they’re a good candidate, they might call in.”
The thought of creating content for a monthly newsletter can seem overwhelming to dentists and their teams, Teele says. That is where companies that specialize in dental patient communication can help.
Reminding patients about scheduled appointments is another important form of communication, but again one you do not want to overdo, Dr Dorfman says. Dentists assume patients do not show up because they are forgetful, so they tend to think that means the more reminder emails or texts they send the better, but that is not the case.
While some patients do simply forget, others decide not to come in because they no longer want to go forward with treatment. Maybe they cannot afford the expense right now, their spouse talked them out of it, or they lost trust in the practice. Whatever the reason, they have no plans of coming or calling to cancel because they know you will try to change their mind. So, if you are sending reminders to patients who are not responding at all, Dr Dorfman suggests calling them instead to find out why.
Automation works great for everyone else, Dr Dorfman says. Send a ‘save the date’ message when patients first schedule so they can easily add the appointment to their calendar. For appointments scheduled 6 or 3 months in advance, it is a good idea to send reminders 3 weeks out. If patients realize they can no longer make the appointment, that gives the practice plenty of time to fill the open slot.
Confirmation emails should go out 3 days before the appointment and then another the day before if they do not respond, Dr Dorfman says. She also suggests sending a text a few hours before they are due in as a final reminder. This will help reduce the number of patients who simply get busy and forget they have an appointment.
For patients who are not scheduled but are due for a recall visit, Means recommends sending a reminder that says it is time for a check-up. If that does not get a response, reach out again 2 weeks before they’re due. Such communications can go out via text or email, depending on what patients prefer.
Dr Dorfman recommends including a link to schedule online with every recall reminder. This not only makes scheduling more convenient for patients, but it also reduces the amount of time team members spend on the phone.
If recall patients do not schedule within about a week, give them a call, Dr Dorfman says. Often, patients are happy to hear from the practice because life got busy, and they just have not found the time to schedule the appointment.
Sending surveys is another way to keep patients engaged, Teele says, and to get feedback on what they like about the office and what they think can be improved. Surveys can be sent via text or email.
Bobrow recommends his clients conduct an annual survey. Not only is this an effective way to gauge patient satisfaction, it also can be used as a tool to educate patients about the office.
“It’s a great practice marketing tool,” Bobrow says. “Dentists can ask if patients are using the teledentistry service, for example, and if they even know it exists. Patients learn about services you offer that they weren’t aware of.”
Communicating via text
Dental practices can communicate with patients via text for more than just appointment reminders, Teele says. The open rate for text messages is much higher than for emails, which is an advantage, but patients still need to opt in. Once they do, you can send information about the practice and links to your educational content via text. Teele suggests sending these texts about once a month.
Two-way texting is another communication tool patients love, Dr Dorfman says, especially for scheduling. Rather than emailing back and forth, practices can text patients with an appointment time and then send the save the date message. Again, this is more convenient for patients who would rather send off a quick text then make a phone call or write an email.
A personal touch
There are small but impactful gestures you can make to keep your practice top of mind. Sending patients customized text or emails on their birthday or following up with a text or call after a procedure makes your practice stand out, Geldis says, and these types of communications are now easier than ever.
“Those small, personal touches used to be incredibly burdensome, manual and time-consuming,” she says, “but technology is solving that.”
Practices can now send a text message to a group of patients that looks and feels like a one-on-one text message conversation, Geldis says, making personal communications and interactions scalable for busy offices.
“If patients have a more difficult procedure like a 4 wisdom teeth extraction I will call them, but for everyone else I automatically send a text that says this is the doctor, I want to make sure everything is OK. If you need me, get back to me,” Dr Dorfman says. “Nobody ever does, but the impact of that text is huge. The texts are completely automated and require very little effort, but to the patient, it looks like a real contact. That makes a huge difference for them.”
Geldis recommends personalizing communications as much as possible to really keep patients engaged and to foster loyalty.
Reviews and referrals
Asking for reviews and referrals is another way to engage with patients, Geldis says. Most patients who have had positive experiences with your practice are happy to write a review.
Geldis suggests asking for reviews during the 24 hours after their appointment. Make it easy for patients by texting them a link to a review site.
The more reviews you have, the better your ranking will be on Google, Teele says, which is why asking for patient reviews is critical. Potential patients will have an easier time finding the practice and will be impressed with the number of positive reviews they see—making them more likely to become active patients.
Asking patients for referrals is also important, and if you are doing a good job of engaging them with other communication methods and providing an overall positive experience, they will be happy to recommend the office to family and friends, Teele says.
Part of that is meeting their immediate needs, Geldis says. When patients call in with an emergency, get back to them quickly and make room in your schedule to see them.
“If you can be there when a patient needs you, you'll build the kind of loyalty that not only makes them a lifelong customer,” Geldis says, “but that makes them confident recommending you to others.”
Dentists also can ask for referrals via their monthly newsletters, Means says. Implementing a program that rewards patients for referrals also can help motivate patients to talk the practice up.
“If you as a practice are staying top-of-mind for your patients, they’re more likely to refer you,” Means says. “And if you do a monthly newsletter they can forward it to family and friends and let them know, ‘Hey here’s my dentist; you should talk to him. He does great work for me.’”
Get the team involved.
Communicating with patients does not just fall on the dentist’s shoulders. It is something team members must be focused on as well, Geldis said. All team members must be trained in effective communication and know how to use the practice’s patient communication platform. They should be able to respond to text messages and feel comfortable talking with patients about a variety of issues over the phone.
It is also a good idea to involve your team in the practice’s newsletter, Means says. Include short articles that introduce team members or that show their expertise on a certain topic. Such articles will help patients feel more connected to your team while also educating them about dental issues, making them more comfortable accepting treatment.
“Having everybody in the practice involved with communicating with patients is something every practice should be doing,” Means says. “It’s not just one person’s job, it’s everybody’s job.”
While offices have been open for a while now and restrictions are easing up, there are still patients concerned about COVID-19. Communicating with patients about the precautions you are taking to keep them safe will make them feel more comfortable scheduling an appointment, Geldis says, and that can be done via text or email.
It also can be included in the practice newsletter, Means says. Another option is to send patients an email when they make an appointment that lets them know about the protocols implemented, helping to alleviate any lingering concerns they might have.
But just like anything else, you do not want to overdo it.
“Pay close attention to what the media are doing nationally and to what’s going on in your community,” Bobrow says. “If numbers are spiking in your area you may want to stay ahead of it and let people know the precautions you’re taking. But if your team members are coached on how to convey empathy and caring, if patients are confident you’re meeting or exceeding all reasonable precautions, and you’re not seeing an increase in cancellations and no-shows, it may not be a problem, so don’t fix it.”
Effective patient communication can lead to practice growth.
Like many business owners, dentists tend to assume patients understand the value of what they provide and know everything about the practice. Often, that is not the case, Bobrow says, which is why effective communication at the right cadence is critical. Patients have a lot of choices when it comes to dental care, so clinicians must make the value they offer clear while also showing patients they are appreciated. Taking control of nonclinical aspects of the practice and focusing on building relationships will lead to increased profitability and will make dentistry more fun.
Once you are ready to improve patient communication, Means recommends starting with 1 thing and growing from there. Do something that makes patients feel more connected to the practice, whether that comes in the form of a monthly newsletter, informational text messages, or calling patients who have not been in since before the pandemic. Whatever path you take, focusing on building effective communication will help your practice thrive.
“You’ll get an increased flow of returning patients coming back on a consistent basis. You’ll also help the practice get new patients through referrals from the existing client base,” Means says. “Providing patients value through these ongoing communications will make them want to come back to your office.”