A Guide to Patient Retention and Practice Growth

Cheslea Robinson

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In March 2020, the US dental industry was brought nearly to a standstill by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although dentistry was harder hit than any other healthcare industry, it’s also recovering faster than anticipated. By mid-August, most dental practices in the United States were again open for business, although many had lower patient volume than was usual pre-pandemic.

Now, however, the recovery has leveled out. Patient volume, it seems, will continue to be a challenge. Many dentists anticipate that patient volume will be their top challenge in 2021. The ADA’s latest projection predicts a 20% reduction in dental spending will continue into 2021. Two key factors influence the reduced patient volume.

First, of course, is continued public concern about infection transmission. Although the rate of COVID-19 infection transmission among dentists and in dental offices is likely very low, it’s still a concern for patients, which means they’re still likely to put off non-emergency dental treatment.

The second factor is the continued high rate of unemployment and lack of economic recovery. Unemployed patients may lack both income and insurance, making them even more likely to delay preventative dental care.

But although many dental practices are still struggling, it’s still possible for the dental industry to thrive in this new normal. By adapting to the unique needs of your patients, you can grow your practice in 2021.

Follow Safety Protocols and Make Patients Feel Safe

Even once the vaccine has been widely distributed and we control the COVID-19 virus spread, the pandemic will forever change public perception of safety and risk. It will be a long time, if ever, before patients feel entirely safe about an activity that involves being indoors around other people with their mouth open.

Retaining patients in the wake of the pandemic will depend both on following effective safety measures to prevent infection and transmission as well as on processes that reassure patients they are safe in your office.

Following the key safety protocols is not difficult. Dentists are infection prevention experts by trade, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publish regularly updated guidelines specific to dental offices during COVID-19. Dentists have long practiced universal precautions to protect against transmission of any infection, and current evidence indicates that these standard protocols effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19.

However, helping patients feel safe enough to return to regular dental visits is a more significant challenge. Build confidence by informing patients about the safety measures in your office and communicating regularly about common concerns.

For patients coming in, minimize the time in the waiting room and interact with them by using digital tools to streamline the patient experience. Consider using aerosol-free interventions when possible, and message your patients regularly about the precautions you’re taking to keep them safe in your office.

Communicate Frequently

Many dentists don’t communicate consistently with patients, often reaching out only once or twice a year. But frequently communicating with patients beyond just recall reminders to schedule appointments when they’re due is even more important now when patients are reluctant to come in for appointments.

The “rule of seven” is a widely proclaimed principle in marketing. Customers need to hear your message an average of seven times before they’re ready to buy. A 2019 study in BDJ Open put this principle to the dental industry test, comparing dental practices that communicated with patients at least seven times in 12 months with those who communicated less. The results were striking.

Dentists who used “7/12” touchpoints with patients saw an increase of nearly 87% in the number of active patients, defined as patients who kept at least one appointment in 16 months. Dentists using the seven touchpoints strategy also gained 38% more new patients than those who didn’t, demonstrating its effectiveness at both patient retention and practice growth.

It’s important to note that these seven communications should not all be transactional reminders to schedule an appointment. Rather, communication should focus on relationship marketing, providing educational content and useful information to keep your practice top-of-mind. In the study, dentists used a mix of both digital and printed materials to provide educational material about oral health.

Educational content and regular communication will be even more important post-pandemic. It’s one of the most powerful ways to build trust and strengthen your relationship with patients. Regular messages about the importance of oral health and your safety practices can encourage patients to return for regular care.

Offer Affordable Care

With decreased patient volume, shifting insurance reimbursement, and marginal profits, affordability for patients may be the last thing on your mind. But with unemployment and dental uninsurance still high, affordability is likely to be a key reason why your patients aren’t scheduling appointments. In a recession, finding ways to make your care more affordable can help you retain current patients and gain new ones.

Providing affordable dental care doesn’t need to mean sacrificing revenue. In fact, it can increase it. For example, offering an in-house payment plan can make complex care more accessible for patients, reducing their likelihood of putting off treatment. Technology for teledentistry and automation can increase your overall efficiency and reduce costs.

If you’re in a state where midlevel dental therapists can provide routine services, consider adding one to your practice. This could enable you to see more patients, offer more affordable care, and increase your profit by focusing your time on more complex, higher-revenue treatments. A 2014 Pew Research case study found that dental practices with a dental therapist increased their profit and gained new patients while providing more affordable care to low-income patients.

Create a Delightful Patient Experience

It’s so common, it’s an adage. No one likes going to the dentist. But to grow your practice in 2021, when your patients struggle with so many competing priorities and concerns, you’ll need to be the dentist where patients enjoy going.

Remember, less than a year ago, the World Health Organization recommended delaying non-essential dental care due to the pandemic. For your patients with dental anxiety, that now defunct announcement could still be the excuse they needed to put off dental care indefinitely.

To bring hesitant patients back and draw in new ones, make yourself accessible. This can start with technology by offering easy appointment scheduling with online booking and automated reminders. Create an “ASAP” scheduling option to enable patients to come earlier if an appointment becomes available. Send automatic, personalized reminders for appointments.

Once your patient arrives, take personalization a step farther by noting things to remember for their next visit. If your patients follow the recommended schedule, you’ll see most of them more frequently than any other healthcare provider. The more they feel you know them, the better their experience will be.

If you cannot remember personal details from one visit to the next, especially about new patients, keep a private notebook where you make notes for yourself about conversations you want to remember. When you greet a patient six months later by asking how their granddaughter’s play was a few months ago, they’ll feel that you know and care about them as a person who’s more than just their teeth.

Another key way to make patients feel valued is to keep your practice running on time. COVID concerns mean patients are even more unhappy with waiting than they were pre-pandemic. Aim for patients to be in your chair as close as possible to their scheduled appointment time.

Finally, practice therapeutic communication. Involve patients in decisions about their treatment. Negative interactions, especially ones that make patients feel invalidated, could reduce trust, increase anxiety, and ultimately increase the likelihood that they’ll leave your practice.

Grow Your Reputation

When you create a delightful patient experience, your happy patients will want to spread the word. Leverage their good experience by inviting them to leave an online review immediately after their appointment. A positive online reputation is paramount. Even before the pandemic, good online reviews were among the major factors that caused patients to choose a different dental practice.

Furthermore, many dental practices have few or no online reviews, so even a few positive reviews could make you stand out from your competition. Encourage patients to review your practice by inviting them to write a review in your automatic post-appointment communication. Respond to negative reviews quickly when appropriate and explain how you’ll address the issue of concern.

Good online reviews are a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you gain more positive reviews, you’ll organically gain more patients who will walk in anticipating a great experience. Their expectations will make them more likely to enjoy their visit and, in turn, to leave a great review.

The dental industry will continue to feel the global pandemic’s impact throughout 2021 and for many years into the future. But with every challenge comes significant opportunities. Like other industries, the healthcare industry has changed dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dentists who can leverage best practices to meet patients’ changing needs in the industry today will not just sustain but grow their practices in 2021.

Ms. Robinson is the manager of growth and product marketing at NexHealth. With more than 10 years of experience working in technical marketing, she helps NexHealth close the gap between patients, providers, and healthcare developers. 

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