Improving Patient Retention: It’s a Team Effort

Written by: Christine Uhen, GDH, BA, IGP Business Advisor, Productive Dentist Academy
patient retention


Improving Patient Retention: It’s a Team Effort

Be More Productive With The Patients You Have

“If only I had more new patients, I’d have a successful practice.”

At some point in your career, have you had this thought? Yes, more new patients would be great, but what about the patients you already have? If you were to review your practice’s data, there are likely several adjustments you and your team could make to retain your existing patients and become more productive without needing a higher volume of new patients.

patient retention

Have you ever worked with a patient who, as they walked out of your practice, made you think, “Oh well, we’ll never see them again?” Or have you ever found yourself wondering what percentage of new patients will actually return to your practice after their initial visit? You’re in good company. According to the American Dental Association, on average, less than 41 percent of new patients revisit the same dentist. Think about that. This means out of every 10 patients you attract to your practice for the first time, only four of them will choose to stick around.

Now that the survival mindset we all hung onto during the pandemic has subsided, patients have returned to dental practices with different expectations. Driving factors for this include increased access to information, awareness of the importance of prevention, and the desire for convenience, accessibility, and a more personal experience. They anticipate that you will utilize technology that improves their experience. They want reassurance and consistency. In a post-pandemic world, patients are seeking trust and value from their dental providers more than ever, which necessitates building strong relationships and providing exceptional care.

Prioritizing patient retention can help practices not only weather future challenges but also thrive in the long run. There are many different approaches you can take to improve patient retention. Let’s start with your team.

Do you know how well your practice’s hygiene recall system performs? Working with your team to develop a stellar hygiene recall system should be at the heart of your retention efforts to ensure your patients return for regular dental hygiene visits. Hygiene appointments help maintain the dentist-patient relationship, and they provide invaluable opportunities for preventive dental care.

Think about the mouth like a car, and the hygiene visit is comparable to an oil change for your car. There might not be anything wrong with your car now, but at 30,000 miles, the mechanic can see what’s going on with your car and predict what sort of maintenance it might need in the near future. The hygiene visit is an opportunity to find out if your patients have any dental issues. If there is anything going on, it can be diagnosed, and the patient’s needs will be taken care of. For your front desk team members, being part of an active patient recall system should be a top priority, but it should also be front of mind for your clinical team members. Every team member should work together to ensure each patient who comes into your practice has their next hygiene appointment scheduled before they leave your office. Creating a strong hygiene recall system within your practice is how your whole team will manage those patients who are not scheduling their next dental appointment and are not pre-scheduled for hygiene appointments.

Establishing a strong patient contact system for scheduling hygiene appointments is the beginning of building long-term patient relationships. The foundation of these relationships lies in the hands of your administrative team, who serve as the initial point of contact for your patients. It’s crucial that every interaction your team has with patients is a positive one, as this fosters a strong bond that increases the likelihood of patients returning for future visits and referring your practice to their friends and family. To achieve this, it’s vital that your administrative team is well-informed, friendly, and efficient. They must also possess a deep understanding of the services your practice provides, your preference as a dentist, and they must be highly trained in the following aspects of their roles:

  • Build Strong Relationships: The article, “The effect of dentist-patient communication on patient satisfaction and anxiety” in Vol. 82, Issue 5 of the Journal of Dental Education, 2018, indicates that patients who reported higher levels of dentist-patient communication and rapport also reported higher levels of patient satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety. By providing excellent customer service and making patients feel welcome, the administrative team can help build strong relationships with patients. This can lead to increased patient loyalty and retention (as well as improved oral health outcomes).
  • Provide Clear and Accurate Billing Information: Billing can be a confusing and frustrating process for patients. The admin team can help by providing clear and accurate billing information and working with patients to develop financial arrangements that help patients work their dental fees into their personal budget.
  • Follow up with Patients: Following up with patients who have missed appointments or who are overdue for treatment can help keep patients engaged with the practice and ensure that they receive the care they need. Find out how your patients prefer to be contacted, whether it’s through traditional methods like phone calls or e-mails, or if your patients prefer text messages or communication through your own patient portal.

Clinical team, you’re not off the hook! In fact, your responsibilities in regard to patient recall and retention are as important as the administrative team’s.

This includes:

  • Assisting the doctor with presenting treatment plans for new and existing patients
  • Knowing all of the services your practice offers
  • Educating your patients on how your services will positively impact their lives
  • Ensure that patients are comfortable at every step of their treatment
  • Having a clear understanding of what the patients needs
  • Create a great experience for them while they are in your office:
    • Guide your patients through your office—give them a tour and stay with them throughout their visit
    • Provide fresh and fun waiting room amenities (snacks, coffee, video games for the kids)
    • Offer free WiFi
    • Find out what makes the patient comfortable and, if you can, give that to them!

The more positive the interaction and the more comfortable a patient is, the more likely they will return (and recommend your practice).

How the clinical hygiene team helps with patient retention:

  • Building Trust and Rapport: The clinical team spends a significant amount of time with patients, which they can use to build trust and rapport. Active listening, validation, keeping a cool head, and staying positive help with building a solid relationship with patients who will be more inclined to stay with you. They might even ask for you by name when they come back. 
  • Providing Preventive Care: The clinical hygiene team is responsible for providing preventive care to patients, such as diagnostic care, preventive and therapeutic hygiene services, and fluoride treatments. By helping patients maintain good oral health, they can prevent the development of more serious dental issues, which can motivate patients to come back for regular hygiene visits.
  • Identifying and Treating Dental Issues: The clinical hygiene team is trained to identify dental issues such as gum disease, cavities, and oral cancer. Detecting and treating these issues early can help patients avoid more serious dental problems and keep them engaged with the practice.
  • Educating Patients: The clinical team members can educate patients on proper oral hygiene practices and assist in the development of treatment plans. They also play a critical role in educating patients about their treatment recommendations as diagnosed from the doctor. They become advocates for the better health of their patients. Empowering patients to take an active role in their dental health helps build trust and foster patient loyalty.

It’s also the job of the clinical team to help the dentist develop a long-term outlook for each patient’s teeth and overall oral health. This helps in managing a patient’s expectations while avoiding surprises. Patients who feel confident that their dentist has their best interests in mind are more likely to return for regular check-ups and procedures.

The dentist also plays a vital role in patient retention. You should take the time to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for each patient. Additionally, in all future appointments, you should continue to regularly check for issues before they turn into major problems.

Dentists should also invest time in developing personal relationships with their patients. As we like to say, “Connect before you correct.” When you show empathy and care to your patients, you work toward building trust with them, and trust is necessary for your patients to accept your treatment recommendations.

For patients who have not been in to see you for years, a wonderful service you can offer them is to spend more time with them. Review their FMX and create, to the best of your ability, a five-year plan for their dental needs. Helping your patients plan for their future dental needs shows that you will be there for them when they are ready to move forward. Patients who feel that their dentist is taking the time to understand their needs are more likely to return for future appointments.

If you discover that you have patients who are not returning to your office for further care, do your research. Find out why this is happening. From interviewing your team, to calling some patients, to sending patient surveys, there are many techniques for identifying why patients aren’t returning. Based on what you learn, there is likely an opportunity to make a change within your practice to ideally attract those patients back or at least prevent further attrition.

By investing in team training, dental practices can improve patient retention, build productivity, and ultimately grow their practice. When patients have a positive experience at your practice, they are more likely to return for future appointments and recommend your practice to others. A strong team effort that involves the administrative team, clinical team, and the dentist is essential for creating an overall positive experience for your patients, and your practice will become all the more successful for it.


Christine Uhen, GDH, BA, is an investment grade practice business advisor and coach with Productive Dentist Academy optimizing practices and helping dentists build a business that supports their current lifestyle while creating an asset for their future. She began her dental journey 35 years ago, providing comprehensive dental care in various roles such as clinical dental hygienist, surgical assistant, practice administrator, and office manager.

Today, Christine is a renowned dental speaker, author, and practice management consultant.