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Contact—Wired to Win: Computer-Driven Communication

You’ve got a captive audience out there. Patient loyalty is yours for the taking, as is allegiance from your staff, and referral sources, too. You just have to play your hand right. Thanks to your computer and its cyber-connections, you’re wired to win. The acid test, though, is how effectively your practice is getting the right information to the right people at the right time, so they can take the right action.


Imagine having a powerful communication resource on tap 24/7. E-mail, a perpetual wild card for use when and as you see fit, gives you uninterrupted access to an ever-growing segment of your patient base, allowing you to communicate with patients and market your practice at the same time. Focused, fast, and free, e-mail is almost too good to be true.

Given the grim reality of a conventional “paper” newsletter from your office being trashed on arrival at a patient’s home, isn’t it a smarter idea to e-mail the newsletter? That way, in addition to your saving all the costs of printing and mailing, your patients can hold onto the newsletter in their e-mail box until they’re ready to look at it, without the proverbial paper pile-up that drives people to toss their hardcopy newsletters.

But the prospects of e-mail go far beyond the e-mailing of a newsletter en masse. Let me walk you through a single scenario to illustrate my point. After the extraction of tooth No. 29 by another dentist, Mrs. Hughes comes to you to discuss the options for restorative work. You explain that there are two viable options. One would be a three-unit bridge, and the other would be an implant and crown for tooth No. 29. After your explanation of both, she’s not sure what she wants to do and says that she’ll call for an appointment when she decides. As you know, such a half-hearted promise is often the kiss of death.

Rather than just letting her leave—worried and uncertain—you casually mention that you’ll e-mail her some information about implants as well as three-unit bridges, and that you’ll be happy to answer any questions that she or her husband have after they review the info. A nearly effortless but brilliant move, Doctor. Although Mrs. Hughes still isn’t sure of which treatment option she’ll choose, what she is sure about is that you’re the one she wants handling or coordinating her treatment. One simple e-mail, in this case, equals on-target patient communication and practice marketing. Couldn’t be easier.

Speaking of communication and marketing, remember all those feel-good letters I’ve been reminding you about for years—yes, the welcome-to-the-practice letters, welcome-to-the-community letters, and those all-important thank-you-for-your-referral letters? Consider how easy and cost-effective it would be to e-mail these and other “standard” letters that put you in direct contact with patients, prospects, and referral sources. What is practice marketing if not that? 

Consider too, the time and cost-savings that can be realized with recall notices and appointment confirmations done via e-mail. An extra, added bonus is that once your staff has established a patient’s preference for e-mail, your practice will be looked upon even more favorably because it has implemented this far less intrusive form of patient contact. Despite all these advantages, less than 10% of doctors actually collect and/or reconfirm e-mail addresses at each patient visit. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

To optimize your e-mail protocol, make sure your team at the front desk collects or verifies each patient’s current information in your practice management system at check-in. Why then? Because when Mrs. Jones comes in, she’s got the time to spend on such information-gathering. On the contrary, when she’s checking out she’s anxious to get home or back to work. Having to schedule her next appointment and take care of her bill for this visit is already pushing her time constraints to the max. 

Check-in is also the ideal time for your front desk person to collect referral source information, and while I’m on the subject, make sure your management system supports what’s referred to as “molecular” referral reporting. Such reporting details the number of patients who were directly and indirectly referred by a particular patient. For instance, Mrs. Jones refers Mr. Smith. That, of course, is a direct referral. But if Mr. Smith subsequently brings in his whole family and half of his team from work, each of these should be noted as indirect referrals from Mrs. Jones.

Having only scratched the surface of e-mail and In­ternet usage in dentistry, the industry now offers some highly specialized professional applications. Some of the more routine professional-to-professional applications deal with communication between the practice and professional referral source. Thanks to today’s technology, virtually all patient reports, charts, images, and/or x-rays can be sent through cyberspace via e-mail. If you consider the workflow created by referral from one professional office to another, it often borders on the absurd. Charts need to be copied, reports need to be generated, x-rays need to be duplicated (with resolution typically lost in the process), and finally, all of it needs to be put into an envelope with some cardboard buffers to keep it from getting damaged, then ad­dressed, stamp­ed, and mail­ed. But that’s only half the hassle.

On the receiving end, somebody has to open the envelope, determine what all the enclosures are about, pull a chart or make up a new patient chart, paper clip the incoming mail to the chart, and file the chart in some “pending” area (likely the already-crowded surface of the doctor’s desk), which means that the chart is not immediately retrievable if the patient or referring doctor happens to call. Ever misplace a chart? You may want to rethink the entire process and opt to send these files—or have them sent—electronically.

For the purpose of professional referral development, general practitioners and specialists should talk with each other to determine how electronic documentation might best be shared. (Some specialists provide Internet access, even high-speed [broadband cable modem] Internet access for their best referral sources. You might inquire about a package deal from your local cable television company for your office and perhaps your top four or five referral sources.) Most often, it’s simply a matter of receiving an image and then importing it into a specific patient record. Two steps can eliminate 10 steps! Of course, not everyone has the same management systems, so it may take a little figuring out, but it’s nothing that two doctors can’t handle. The ease of electronic record transfer will be a welcome change for staff in both the specialists’ and the general practitioners’ offices. Furthermore, the resulting timeliness and accuracy of records going back and forth will be a boon to both doctors and to their mutual patient.

Because you’re not about to do a root canal over the World Wide Web, nor walk a patient through a self-extraction using a piece of string and a doorknob, why would you need a website? What could it possibly do for your practice? Instead of trying to divine the answers through some cyber-psychic, research it like you would any other capital investment. Rather than advising you on whether or not you should have a website, what I’d like to do next is address several points that would be important should you decide to go ahead with a “presence” on the “information superhighway.”

In addition to the usual practice brochure-type info about the doctor(s), practice, description of services, etc, it would be very helpful to have the following instruments of information technology as an integral part of your website:

  • Interactive scheduling to allow patients to schedule their appointments online (this, of course, is based on the assumption that patients have copies of their treatment plans, complete with the amount of time needed for each appointment).

  • Secure, integrated system by which a patient can enter his name and password to retrieve his account balance and even pay his bill online.

  • Links for each dentist in the practice whereby the patient just needs to click the link to send an e-mail directly to the dentist.

  • Links to information on specific topics such as “Root Canal Therapy: What to Expect.”

  • New patient forms that patients can fill out online and e-mail back. This keeps patients from having to spend an extra 15 or so frustrating minutes in the reception room, trying to juggle a clipboard—and perhaps a baby or toddler—just to fill out the endless paperwork. And think of the time/motion efficiency of this. Rather than your patient scribbling what often turns out to be unreadable info, and your business staff having to try to decipher it so that the data can be entered into your management system, you ask the patient to fill out the form online and send it. All your staff needs to do is transfer it from e-mail into the patient’s record in the management system. Positively brilliant.

Finally—and this should go without saying—if you plan to develop a website, make very sure that you’re dealing with a company that has the skills and experience to create a site that is first and foremost technically sound. You can’t afford to have your information technology gummed up by either misinformation or malfunction. Several of the management system vendors offer website development—with patient-integrated modules—as well as hosting services.

Three last thoughts on your website: you want it to be easy to navigate, visually appealing, and professional from home page to every last link. Remember, the goal is to use information technology for the good of your practice.

Ms. McKenzie is a certified management consultant and a nationally-known lecturer, author, and consultant to the Council on Dental Practice of the ADA. She is president of McKenzie Management and Associates, which provides in-office analysis of the business, clinical, and hygiene department; conducts on-site staff training; and offers a full line of educational management books, audiotapes, and videos. Since opening McKenzie Management in 1979, Sally has developed the most expedient practice systems, methods, and technologies as well as the most effective management approaches for the dental practice. Additionally, Ms. McKenzie’s 34 years of experience and expertise are now available as on-tap resources for her new ventures: practicemanagement-online.com and dentalcareerdevelop.com. To receive Sally’s FREE practice management-online (PMOL) e-newsletter or her weekly Monday Morning Management Memorandum via e-mail, call Sally toll-free at (877) 777-6151, or sign up at either of these web­sites: www.mckenzie­mgmt.com; or www.practicemanagement-online.com.



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