10 Practical Steps to Creating An Outstanding New Patient Experience
Patients are the heart and soul of your dental practice. Attracting and retaining new patients is an ongoing effort, even for the most experienced dentists. In fact, it’s normal for an established practice to grow stagnant, catering to the needs of an established patient base instead of constantly improving and enhancing the new patient experience.
Dr. Michael Fooshée is the Chief Clinical Officer at Apex Dental Partners. In this role, Dr. Fooshée is the leading resource for the 70+ general dentists and specialists in our family of practices. His focus is on quality care and long-term patient relationships, offering insight to the patient experience and advice any dental team can implement to grow and maintain a steady patient base.
1. Invite Patients with a Thoughtful First Impression
New patients typically discover your practice through a referral or online source. Keep this in mind, as you’ll want your marketing messaging and word-of-mouth recognition to match the first impression your potential new patient will gain on their own.
Consider things like your social media content, Google My Business page, and website. If you haven’t updated your web presence in a while, be intentional to ensure:
- Practice details like working hours, contact information, and branding are consistent across all platforms.
- Photos and videos show your office and team members in a positive light.
- Services and treatment offered are accurate to your current team.
- Navigation across all platforms is clean and easy.
Once prospective patients feel comfortable with what they’ve learned online, they’ll likely call your office to ask questions and, hopefully, set an appointment. “Creating an exceptional patient experience starts with the first thing they read about you; it’s the lure that attracts them to your practice. Then, the initial phone call is what hooks a new patient into your practice,” says Dr. Fooshée.
A new patient should always receive the undivided attention of your front desk team. Being placed on hold for long periods of time, or difficulty scheduling an appointment leads to patients looking elsewhere. Keep in mind, established patients waiting in-person for a phone call to end will likely be more forgiving of a busy check-in desk, while those on the phone have no context and may simply call a different office if kept waiting for too long.
This initial conversation is crucial to eliciting important information about your patient’s preferences and concerns so you can begin developing a thorough patient chart. Train your team to answer the phone with a smile and ask open-ended questions. While no specific diagnosis or treatment should ever be offered over the phone, it’s crucial your prospective patient feels heard, is treated with empathy, and feels hopeful that your practice can provide the services they need.
We recommend developing a script or checklist to confirm all pertinent information is collected during this introductory phone call. This script should include a personalized greeting, phrases to build value for your doctors, and determining questions if your patient is feeling pain or believes they need treatment in a particular area. Schedule their first appointment within seven days, then offer an immediate follow-up email with new patient paperwork and links to learn more about your doctors, team, and services.
2. Lessen Anxiety with a Welcoming Reception
Dental offices are high-anxiety environments by nature. It’s crucial to help new patients feel relaxed and welcomed as soon as they walk through your doors. Dust, clutter, and loud noises aren’t just signs of carelessness, but can actually cause new patients to question your team’s ability to deliver treatment that is sterile, safe and efficient.
Utilize your reception area to put your best foot forward and reduce dental anxiety before it starts. Instead of the news or a series on patient education, try playing HGTV, Food Network, or nostalgic music videos on your lobby televisions. Keep alarming front desk ringtones at a low volume and encourage your reception team to tidy their spaces frequently, staying cautious of sticky notes, snacks, or personal belongings that may be in view.
Even the greatest dentist will be undervalued if their practice lacks warmth and consideration of accomodations. “First impressions matter,” says Mary Clark, Office Manager at Edwards Ranch Dental. “Many new patients may be nervous about their visit. At our office, we have a lavender diffuser in the reception area and as an option in the exam rooms.” Aromatherapy is great for cleaning the air and calming first-time jitters. However, Mary suggests professionalism is equally important. It’s the role of every team member to look their best, including a clean, neat uniform, name tag and a smile.
3. Understand the Importance of Your Morning Huddle
The Morning Huddle gives everyone on your team an overview of the day and is the perfect time to communicate the needs of your new patients. Ideally by this time, the patient has interacted with your practice via their initial phone call and by submitting their patient paperwork. This collective information should provide insight to their referral source and reason for visiting, as well as any medical or social concerns.
Discussing details like, how the patient prefers their name pronounced, if the patient is currently in pain, or if the patient just moved to town from another state, will all help guide your team’s interactions. This open communication before the patient’s arrival can also help unify your team and provide a more complete level of care.
“For example, if a patient has a latex allergy, you always want to make sure everyone interacting with the patient is notified,” Dr. Fooshée advises. “Even patients coming in for a routine cleaning will likely interact with several team members. Making sure everyone is aware of patients’ specific needs during the huddle helps prevent serious accidents.”
4. Communicate Often & Intentionally
A common source of frustration for new patients is the reiteration of their symptoms to each new team member they connect with. Paired with a stack of paperwork and unfamiliar faces, it’s understandable why many practices lose new patients before they even get to the chair.
Streamline communication by letting your hygienist drive the conversation during the morning huddle. With the information gathered in the patient’s chart, everyone on the team should be aware of each patient’s health history and needs before the patient reaches the reception desk.
Once the patient is called back for their exam or cleaning, allow your hygienist to fill in any missing notes or concerns. Before the dentist comes in, eliminate the need to ask the same redundant questions by confidently acknowledging medications, their referral source, or other specific pain points listed in the paperwork or recently reviewed with your team.
“Let the patient know that you know,” recommends Dr. Fooshée. “Communicating with the hygienist beforehand, then confirming individual concerns with the patient is the best way to let them know you were listening.”
Improve your entire team’s communication with these simple tips:
- Introduce yourself, wear a name tag, and use the patient’s name often when addressing them.
- Make eye contact with your patient, even when in the treatment room.
- Ask open-ended questions and demonstrate active listening techniques. Stories of your new patient’s family or vacation plans can be useful in building a relationship and developing their patient chart as time goes on.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a genuine smile!
5. Be Diligent with a Complete Oral Exam
The oral exam is where many dental professionals thrive. We trust that the expertise and skill of your team is of high quality. However, there are some tips we can offer to improve the new patient experience, especially once they’re in the chair.
Be patient, and block extra time
Discovering your new patient’s pain points and offering solutions to ease their discomfort will take time. We recommend blocking first-time cleaning visits for at least 90 minutes, compared to an average prophy for an existing patient only being 50 – 60 minutes. This added time not only allows for patient paperwork, but for your team to build rapport with the patient so they feel welcomed and comfortable.
Keep up your thorough communication
As mentioned previously, patients don’t want to be burdened with the same repetitive questions. As your patient goes through their concerns, and reasons for a first visit, encourage your hygienist to take notes in your patient management software. Detail any findings during the cleaning and x-rays, then add additional information as you discover the patient’s life situation and motivators such as appearance, comfort, or cost-savings.
“Two doctors could be doing the exact same thing in a patient exam, but the one who communicates well will make the patient feel like they were better cared for,” Dr. Fooshée reminds us. For example, a patient may offer post-appointment feedback that they never received an oral cancer screening. As dental professionals, we know the patient likely did get screened, but simply wasn’t made aware of the process. Encourage your team to be specific in explaining what they are doing and why each step is important.
New patients are usually seeking out your practice due to a motivating life factor. These factors can range from the excitement of an upcoming wedding or change in career, or the difficulty and stress of a recent move or dental pain they can no longer ignore. It’s important to remember that every new patient has a story and we should be cautious not to judge, guilt, or belittle patients who may have poor oral hygiene. New patients who have avoided visiting the dentist will likely have a reason for their reservations, but are now looking to your team for treatment and guidance to improve their health and habits. Be respectful and encouraging to remind your new patient that the best way to improve their oral health is by making consistent good choices, and the decision to visit your practice was a great first step!
6. Highlight Leading-Edge Technology
Dental technology helps better care for your patients and improves the patient experience overall. Many advances offer your team the ability to catch problems early and streamline processes, which leads to less invasive, timely, or costly treatment for your patients in the long run.
Demonstrating modern systems and leading-edge resources to new patients is a clear indication that you value precision and efficiency in your treatment. Consider the increased productivity in the digital workflow alone, where practices can now send and receive patient paperwork, specialist notes, and lab preferences, safely and securely online.
If you’ve recently invested in an iTero or other scanner, don’t just mention the benefits to a new patient, but offer them a complimentary scan during their first appointment. Educate your patient on the value this technology provides to your clinical team and the treatment that can now be streamlined that is specific to their smile goals.
7. Use Your Time Wisely
As important as it is to be thorough and communicative during each step of a new patient’s visit, it’s equally valuable to show respect for the time they’re spending with your team.
While it may seem obvious to be cognizant of time wasted in the waiting room, you should also be aware of how long new patients spend in the exam room, as this is often the reason first-time visits run long. If we aren’t careful, dentists can get caught up chatting in an attempt to ease nerves or build value in the practice. Though your patient may be having a good time getting to know the dentist, this delay can lead to a domino effect in every treatment room. Dentists, keep your schedule on track by limiting this light-hearted conversation to 2 – 3 minutes only.
Conversely, some dentists may struggle to build rapport and overcompensate by overwhelming the new patient with the details of their oral health and treatment. Even clinical discussions should be kept to a minimum, Dr. Fooshée offers, “Though the intention is good, try not to use too much dental jargon during the exam process because that only leads to anxiety.”
8. Present Your Treatment Plan the Right Way
A new patient who hasn’t visited the dentist in a while is likely anticipating a long list of needed treatment. Though the treatment plan you have in mind may be extensive and require several visits to complete, don’t overwhelm your new patient by presenting the full plan at once. Instead of elaborating on the patient’s faults, commend them for coming in and offer assurance that they will receive outstanding care in their future visits. Dr. Fooshée suggests saying something like, “We know it’s been a long time since you’ve been in, but the good news is that you’re here today and we can get you taken care of.”
Educate your patient on just the next immediate step. Share the x-rays and photos gathered during the exam so you can be specific without using confusing dental terminology. Dr. Fooshée says focus mainly on the three points most patients want to know:
- How long will the next appointment take?
- Will this treatment hurt?
- How much will treatment cost?
Treatment acceptance rates are highest when the treatment plan is presented in a timely manner. If your team anticipates preparing a new patient’s treatment plan may take longer than usual, consider bringing the dentist in for their exam before the hygienist has completed the cleaning. This way, once the patient is done with the cleaning, the treatment plan should be ready to present.
9. Offer Flexible Scheduling and Payment Options
Doctor-patient interactions should be about comfort, treatment, and helping to improve the patient’s oral health – not transactional. Communication regarding insurance, payment options, and remaining balances should be left to the administrative team.
As more people move away from traditional dental insurance policies in favor of a provider they trust, ensure that your practice has options that make paying out-of-pocket manageable for your patients. Offer healthcare financing like CareCredit or LendingClub, or your own in-house dental plan. In today’s modern world, there could also be a benefit to accepting less traditional payment methods like Paypal or ApplePay so patients can pay their bill online.
10. Ask For a Referral
Patient referrals are essential in running a successful practice. Every new patient appointment should conclude with the opportunity for your practice to receive feedback and the offer for patients to share their experience with their community.
Dr. Fooshée recommends the dentist initiate the request for a referral as they conclude the dental exam. This could be as simple as saying, “We really enjoy having great patients like you in our practice. If you’d like to do us a favor and send your friends and family to us, that would be a huge compliment to our team.” Build rapport, be gracious, and offer a way for patients to thank you for the hard work of your team.
Most would agree that great service should be shared with the community. Here are some tips for getting new patients to spread the message of their outstanding experience:
- Initiate a follow-up text or email with a link to your Google My Business, Yelp, or Facebook page
- Hand out a “thank you” card as your new patient checks out with the direct line of your office manager and a QR code to your preferred review page
- Follow up with a phone call the day after your patient’s first visit. If they enjoyed their experience, send a text with a direct link to leave a review.
To create an outstanding new patient experience, each step of the process should be undertaken with care and attention. The value in an environment where your patients feel welcome, safe, and professionally treated is key to your success and growth.
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