It’s a story we’ve heard from patients time and time again: when life gets hectic, or bills start to pile up, or the days seem too short, going to the dentist can easily fall off the list. Oral healthcare frequently gets put on the back burner and deprioritized as a want or “nice-to-have,” instead of a need, despite its important role in overall health.
The reality is, many patients do value oral healthcare – but they often face barriers such as financial difficulties, fear of the dentist, and confusion about dental care. As healthcare providers, we can work to remove these barriers and improve the experience for all our patients.
By committing to improving access to care, dentists can bridge this existing gap and help patients live healthier lives.
PRIORITIZE FLEXIBLE HOURS
Not having time is one of the most common reasons patients skip the dentist – especially when appointments are only available from 9am to 5pm. This timetable means patients are forced to call out of work to receive care, which can translate to lost wages.
Rigid office hours become an even bigger problem when it comes to emergency care. Patients are forced to seek out urgent care facilities to relieve the pain, instead of seeing a qualified dentist. Although a visit to urgent care may temporarily take care of the pain, it does little to address the root cause, creating an ongoing cycle and allowing the problem to increase over time.
A lack of options impacts different populations in different ways. For example, in Houma and Gonzalez, Louisiana, Dr. Chedly Vincent, DMD, is committed to expanding access to care by bringing care to rural communities who consistently face barriers to that access. Patients may face a longer drive, which can cut further into wages, not to mention present real scheduling hurdles particularly for caregivers who may have multiple children or aging parents to pick up and support.
A native of Louisiana, Dr. Vincent knew she wanted to work in the area after dental school and create more opportunities for oral health education and care.
At the same time, veterans face challenges accessing oral healthcare. Unless a veteran is 100% disabled, has a service-related mouth injury, or was a prisoner of war, they are not eligible for dental benefits through the Veterans Administration. And even if they do meet these qualifications, extreme backlogs and wait times make it difficult to get an appointment.
To combat this issue in his own community, Aspen Dental practice owner Dr. Jere Scott Gillan, DMD, works to provide flexible hours in the early morning and late evening, and accommodates walk-in appointments. A veteran himself, Dr. Gillan is passionate about expanding care and “rolls out the blue carpet” to ensure his patients know they are receiving the best care possible, at times that work for them. Dr. Vincent employs many of these same scheduling modifications to better reach patients in her community.
In addition to walk-ins, consider extending your office hours to make life easier for patients, not harder. Aspen Dental practices often have early morning or late evening hours to accommodate schedules and some are open on weekends depending on community needs. A little flexibility goes a long way – and may even create more job opportunities.
KEEP COSTS TRANSPARENT
Many patients associate dentists’ offices with high costs and surprise fees, and this fear can often prevent patients from seeking care. When it comes to dental pain, patients may not have an understanding of what’s truly wrong and may feel like they’re paying over and over again to discover what the problem is – something that’s even scarier for patients without insurance.
In the healthcare industry, price is not typically transparent – and often, it can be confusing. But we know it’s the right thing to do. Along with each treatment plan, we provide a detailed breakdown of cost – so that patients understand their treatment plan and the cost associated with it, so they can make informed decisions regarding their health. We’ve all heard stories about patients getting charged more than they anticipated as more and more follow up appointments are made.
Just one negative payment experience can cause trepidation from a patient for life.
Instead, adopt a philosophy of ‘no surprises.’ If a patient requires a specific treatment or procedure, let them know right away – for dental ‘deprioritizers,’ this may be their only shot for care before life gets in the way again. Offer financing options to help patients plan appropriately. And when possible, prioritize care. Almost all Aspen Dental practices offer a free new patient exam and X-ray to help lay the groundwork for patients and jumpstart their oral health journey.
EDUCATE YOUR PATIENTS
Many patients aren’t aware of the link between oral healthcare and overall wellbeing. Although they know they should brush their teeth twice a day and floss, they don’t realize the link between gum disease and other health challenges like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Help make dentistry more accessible by ensuring patients understand that routine care is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle by educating them over the course of an appointment.
Dr. Laura Ortega, DMD, is an Aspen Dental practice owner with locations across Florida, where a substantial amount of her patients speak only Spanish or Creole. Committed to building trust with every patient she serves, Dr. Ortega is intentional about making sure a language barrier doesn’t inadvertently become an education or access barrier.
She strategically hires bilingual staff members to ensure that patients can fully understand what is happening over the course of an appointment. Her staff supports patients at all stages, sharing forms and care instructions in the correct language to make sure patients feel listened to and have every opportunity to ask questions and receive answers.
KNOW YOUR COMMUNITY
There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint when it comes to improving access to care. Each community is different and requires different needs and supports. It’s important to understand the specific barriers preventing your neighbors from seeking care and implementing what makes sense for your practice and team. Take time to talk to your patients and identify what will make an impact for them.
Looking at another Aspen Dental care team in Florida provides an example of how to make an impact in your community. Dr. Cristina Dominguez Griffee, DMD, is a practice owner in Florida, operating six offices along with her husband Dr. Justin Griffee, DMD, and has invested significant time and resources to establish a footprint in their community. “If we can truly know our patient community, we can better build on the trust and connective qualities that put patients at ease with their selection of us as their provider,” Dr. Dominguez Griffee shares.
The team often sponsors local clubs and teams in the community and participate in fundraisers, and Dr. Dominguez Griffee is often stopped by patients outside of the office to say hello. Building relationships with patients at all stages is a critical part of operating a practice that truly meets your community members where they are.
When it comes to improving access to care, the most important place to start is with intention. Think about your current services and structure and consider: what change can I make today that will support a patient tomorrow?
Consider what barriers currently exist and how you can make a change today to make appointments as easy as possible. Aspen Dental offices are completely ADA accessible to support disabled patients and offer ASL interpreters for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Many of our teams offer a wide variety of services in house, eliminating the need to seek out specialists for extra care. Instead, oral surgeons and endodontists travel to different Aspen Dental offices in the community to provide services under one roof. And we frequently take a wider range of health insurances than most offices, expanding options for our patients.
Intentionally evolving and growing is the most important thing care teams can do for patients. Whether that’s attending continuing education courses and bringing that knowledge back to your own community, or implementing new technologies that improve accessibility, there’s always a way to move forward.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Lauren McDonough is the Vice President of Practice Owner Development for Aspen Dental, the dental arm of The Aspen Group (TAG) healthcare organization. She previously owned several practices in the Aspen Dental network and now uses her experience to help guide other Aspen Dental doctors on their ownership journey.