Running a Successful Patient Reactivation Strategy

Patients are the lifeblood of any thriving dental practice. Inactive patient reactivation can be the difference between a profitable practice and one that is constantly wishing for more new patients.

You invest precious time and money in acquiring and onboarding new patients. With proper care they should become loyal patients and prove to be invaluable to your practice as they regularly attend their hygiene appointments and seek a lifetime of dental care. On the other hand, lapst or inactive patients result in lost time, money, and productivity.

A strategic dental reactivation plan is one of the most cost effective strategies you can implement for both building a lucrative practice and giving fantastic patient care.

Jake Dold, Chief Marketing Officer at Apex Dental Partners offers a few tips and insights for dentists and practice managers who want to harness the power of patient reactivation. 

“Our approach to reactivation uses a combination of communication methods, arranged in a strategic sequence,” explained Dold. “By combining text, email, postcards and phone calls each patient has a higher probability of receiving at least a couple of touchpoints.” 


The Difference Between Active and Inactive Patients

Active patients are those who stay current with their exams, cleanings, and any dental treatment they need. These are your loyal patients who prioritize their oral health and who also regularly contribute to your practice’s revenue. 

We define an inactive patient as one who has not attended or made an appointment for at least 18 months. During this window there still may be an opportunity to revive the relationship and convert them into an active patient.

In addition to active and inactive patients, there is an in-between category of active patients who are approaching inactivity. Patients who you have seen within the past 18 months but haven’t scheduled the next appointment may be due for “recall.” This is a very important group of patients, but we will save strategies for reengaging these patients for another article.

When engaging with inactive patients, it helps to show awareness and empathy for the patient’s obstacles and pain points. Doing this not only eases the path to reactivation, it also strengthens the patient-provider relationship.

Patients become inactive for a variety of reasons including:

  • Simple procrastination scheduling dental appointments, especially “routine” hygiene appointments
  • Employer or group insurance plan changes 
  • Missing appointments then forgetting to reschedule
  • Failing to return after COVID shutdowns and restrictions.
  • Changing dental providers without notice
  • Financial concerns

Many of the most common reasons for patient inactivity may be effectively addressed with a conversation. 

For example, during a follow-up call you may encounter a patient who is always a little nervous about dental care so he procrastinates on setting appointments. Hearing from a team member may be reassuring enough to motivate this patient to schedule an appointment during the phone call. During another call, you may learn the patient changed jobs and is confused by the new insurance plan. Sometimes simple clarification is all that is required to keep that patient. 

How COVID-19 Impacted Patient Activity 

While most practices face the challenge of patient inactivity, the COVID-19 pandemic further amplified this problem. However as life returns to normal for many patients, you also have a prime opportunity to re-engage them. 

“Most practices have patients who missed their regular hygiene appointments when their local practices were closed beginning in March 2020,” Dold said. “There are some who haven’t come back yet and will soon be part of a ballooning 18 month reactivation list.”

According to the American Dental Association (ADA) people are ready to return to their dentist after delaying treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the ADA reported in April 2021 that patient volume raised to 86% for private dental practices across the nation. 

If you have extra inactive patients, now may be an ideal time to reach out and to encourage them to schedule an appointment. Taking this opportunity to reconnect sends the message that your practice cares for their wellbeing.


Why Reactivation Has the Best Marketing ROI

Sometimes when discussing patient reactivation, dental team members feel like they are being forced into a sales role. We can all agree that it is extremely important to position yourselves as clinicians who provide sound medical recommendations; it’s also important to remember that the way you communicate those recommendations is essential. You may have heard the classic ABCs of sales, “always be closing.” A better approach for dentists is to think of the ABRs, “always be reactivating!”

When you crunch the numbers you may realize how the minor expenses associated with executing a reactivation campaign are well worth it.

If you consider the resources used for new patient marketing, onboarding, and administration; the costs associated with a new patient quickly add up. Most practices find it takes a whole year before they can recoup the cost of a new patient. 

In comparison, reactivating an inactive patient is far less expensive. Depending on the structure of the reactivation strategy you implement, your highest expense may be a $0.52 postcard and a team member’s hourly rate.

If you have a team member who earns $40 per hour making calls to reactivate patients and they schedule just one in an hour, that is already more than 5 times less expensive than a highly effective Google Ads campaign for new patients. 

If you believe your marketing and advertising expenses are too high, or that your new patient numbers are too low, look to patient reactivation for a more cost-effective marketing solution. The value of reactivation becomes more obvious when you consider how much revenue an active patient may bring in over the years.


Calculating the Lifetime Value of a Patient

In most fields, the standard guideline is that acquiring and onboarding a new customer costs as much as five times more than retaining an existing customer. Basically, the resources you spend reactivating old patients will be the most cost-effective marketing activity.

We use this formula to estimate the revenue a patient brings your practice over a lifetime of care:

[Average revenue per patient per year] x [Average number of years an individual remains a patient] = Average Lifetime Value

Let’s look at an example calculation. The average active patient may result in $650 of production per year. If the average patient stays with your practice for 8 years, the average lifetime value of a patient would be $5,200. Of course, the actual lifetime value of each patient will vary by location, the type of practice, and the individual patient’s dental needs.


How Many Inactive Patients Does Your Dental Practice Have?

The CDC reported over 35% of American adults haven’t seen a dentist in the past year and nearly 20% have untreated dental caries.

Your patient retention rates will vary depending on your community, patient roster, and your existing scheduling and follow-up tactics. For example, if your hygiene team consistently schedules next visits in the chair, you may have fewer inactive patients on the books.


How to Plan and Execute a Reactivation Campaign

Follow this basic plan to reactivate your lapsed patients. Not only does this improve your practice’s revenue, it also helps ensure better oral health for your patients. It is one of life’s win-win situations for everyone involved.


Who to Target in Your Reactivation Campaign

For the reactivation techniques covered in this article, we recommend that you focus on inactive patients who do not have significant outstanding treatment needs (treatment plans under $5000). Patients who need more expensive treatment require more personalized outreach since their obstacles may be higher.

Many inactive patients wait until they experience pain or discomfort before scheduling an appointment. Sometimes a friendly reminder is all they need to break out of that cycle.


Executing A Patient Reactivation Strategy: Whose Job Is It?

Designate someone to be the practice reactivation captain. This is often the office manager, but you may find other team members are a better fit. The reactivation captain is usually someone with high energy and exceptional phone skills. 

Help your team understand that a successful reactivation strategy relies on a whole team effort. Anytime there are holes in the schedule, your team should know what they can do to help with the reactivation efforts.

Outbound phone calls are often considered the responsibility of the front office, but hygienists are ideal due to their rapport with their patients and their ability to make nervous people feel at ease. Also, a call from a hygienist seems more like a wellness call than a “sales” call.


Keeping Staff Morale and Motivation High

For the most common reactivation strategies, 80% of the strategy can run on autopilot, but there are a few areas where things can derail quickly. Keeping the team motivated and the process running smoothly is the responsibility of the reactivation captain, and they should be aware that making phone calls is something many people dread or feel demotivated by. 

“Nobody enjoys making these calls, ” Dold commented. “But they are highly effective!”

On the surface, this may feel like a “thankless” chore. However, once the caller reaches a patient there is a high likelihood that the patient will immediately schedule an appointment over the phone. This work pays off!

Chances are once the caller schedules a few lapsed appointments the work will feel more rewarding. In the meantime, consider offering creative incentives to keep motivation high and to demonstrate your commitment to patient reactivation.

Here are a few ideas for team incentives:

  • Offer a bonus for each patient who schedules an appointment. Some doctors offer $10 per reactivation but this will vary by the practice.
  • If more than one person is making the calls, consider a friendly contest or a group incentive.
  • Often reactivation will involve multiple staff members, for example, if your hygienist leaves a voicemail message there is a possibility the patient may call later and schedule an appointment through a member of the front office staff. Consider a team incentive like a daytrip, fun activity or party to celebrate reactivation milestones. 

Four Step Reactivation Process

At Apex Dental, we have found combining outreach methods leads to better results. Think of the following reactivation sequence as a set of building blocks. Each stage provides a foundation for the next. 

You start with low-impact outreach methods that you can easily automate. This foundation stage catches a few of the easy wins. Later when a team member calls, the earlier notices provide the caller with an introductory talking point and icebreaker. 

We recommend a four step process to reactivate inactive patients.

  1. Text: Some patients only need a quick text message to remind them to make their appointment. Plus, if you have the ability to offer online scheduling then patients can click and schedule straight from their phone without needing to call the practice! You may be able to automatically schedule the reminder text through your patient communication for the day that patient crosses the threshold from active to inactive.
  2. Email: Email follow-up catches some of the people who don’t accept text messages, have a landline, or simply prefer email. Schedule the email for a few days after the text message. 
  3. Postcards: Some practices find postcards effective especially for reaching patients who are not online or if the email reminder went to the spam inbox. 
  4. Direct Phone Calls: Nothing beats a personal conversation for reactivating the patients who did not respond to other outreach methods. We try the others first since some patients will reactivate after receiving a text message, email, or postcard. Since you already sent information, the caller has an opening to use when initiating the conversation with the patient. Call within a week or two after sending the first text message, basically you want to give the patient time to act on the earlier messages but not enough time to forget the previous messages.

Bonus: Scheduling in the chair reduces the need for reactivations in the future. You could say that preventing inactivity is the best activation method of all.

We find that the combination of text, email, and postcards typically results in 1.5 touches (frequency in marketing terms) per person. 


Setting Up Systems for Follow-up

If you are a dentist initiating a reactivation program, keep in mind this isn’t a set it and forget it activity. Check in periodically to see how it is going and whether there are ways to fine tune the program. Delegating and leaving it be is the fastest way for any strategy to fail.

“It’s about creating a system that works for your team,” Dold explained. “Build your system and test it yourself by creating a small list, sending reminders then making a few calls. Once you know how it works, train your team to implement it and take the lead. But don’t forget about it completely. You have to follow up on a regular basis.”

The best system depends on your practice, staffing and capacity. If your staff are already overextended then a purely automated reminder system is better than nothing, but you will have much better results if you can include phone calls. Afterall, personal touch results in a better patient experience. 

When designing your system, take a moment to think about when your team will dedicate time to working the reactivation list. This is a great downtime activity that brings revenue to your practice.  For best results, make follow-up calls on a regular basis such as monthly or quarterly depending on your staff bandwidth and the number of inactive patients.

Managing your reactivation process is easier when you use a good patient communications system. If you don’t already have one, look for a platform that offers the tools necessary to identify patients, create call lists, and note results of calls. 

About Offering Discounts and Incentives to Patients

Depending who you ask, there are mixed feelings about whether to offer inactive patients a discount or incentive to return to the practice. In an ideal world, good oral health should be its own reward.

Some practices have success offering reactivation incentives like a free fluoride or a one-time discount on services like teeth whitening or Invisalign. The best offer is the one that appeals to your patients and works well for your practice.


Next Steps: Putting Your Plan in Action

If possible, run patient reactivation campaigns on a rolling basis throughout the year. Combining follow-up campaigns with proactive in-the-chair scheduling will increase your practice productivity, improve your patient’s oral health, and help fill your schedule.

Maintaining a roster of active patients keeps your practice’s value high and also keeps your marketing budget affordable. 

Best of all, when you see your patients on a regular basis you develop a stronger relationship with them. These patients are more likely to trust your recommendations for specific dental treatments. 

“A successful patient reactivation strategy provides a win-win opportunity for both patients and dental practices,” said Dold.


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By choosing the right partner, selling your dental practice can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your professional career. At Apex Dental Partners, we work closely with you every step of the way to ensure you feel comfortable and confident you're making the best decision for your future.