Five Messages for New Patients.
A couple of years ago, the University of Arkansas (UARK) Razorbacks adopted the motto, “We Are Uncommon.” The head football coach, Bret Bielema, introduced the phrase at his 2012 introductory press conference. When speaking about his football recruits, Bielema said, “We recruit men that are held to higher standards. I don’t want people to be normal. I want them to be uncommon.”
Bielema’s philosophy extends to every part of the UARK football experience—and not just for players. Fans are treated to an uncommon experience, too. The stadium doesn’t just light up on game nights, it glows cardinal red (one of the university’s official colors). The idea of being uncommon also permeates the Razorback culture and is effectively communicated—on tickets, banners, social media posts, T-shirts, and more—to players, students, alumni, and spectators alike.
After a recent game, I started thinking about the phrase, “We are uncommon,” in terms of the dental practices that I visit. Every new patient in your practice should walk away from his or her initial experience at your office thinking that the experience was special . . . unique . . . and yes, uncommon.
It doesn’t take a lot of time or work to create an uncommon experience for your patients. But I promise if you do, you will see a difference in the amount of new patients who return to your practice.
The First Visit
“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” This quote conveys the critical importance of first impressions. First impressions are important for all relationships—especially the dentist-patient relationship. A positive experience during a patient’s first visit to the office largely determines whether or not you will have a continuing relationship with that patient.
New patients are the lifeblood of every practice. Don’t misunderstand me—existing patients are important, too. But new patients become existing patients after they’ve had a good experience with a dental practice and decide to return for future care and procedures.
It’s important to attract and maintain a flow of new patients primarily for three reasons: number one, some patients will move because of job or family obligations; number two, some patients will change dentists because of office hours or a change of insurance plans; and number three, some patients will unfortunately pass away. So you need to attract and keep new patients—continually.
The new patient experience begins when patients call the office for their first appointment. Once they’re in the office, the experience continues and includes greeting new patients, gathering new patient information (the new patient interview), and communicating that information to the team before handing the patient off for treatment.
To facilitate a smooth process, your entire team should be ready when a new patient walks in the front door of the practice. During each morning huddle, discuss the patients for the day and particularly make note of any new patients.
Meet and Greet
As soon as patients enter your practice, they should receive a greeting. Your team should greet all patients immediately—even if it’s just a simple acknowledgement. It’s not something that patients always receive and it can really make your practice uncommon. You might be surprised at how many practices don’t acknowledge patients when they walk in the door. Even worse, I’ve seen some offices treat new arrivals as an interruption. Instead, teach team members to look at arrivals as an event and an opportunity.
When a new patient walks in the door, I think it’s nice for team members to stand and greet them. I like to greet patients by saying, “You must be Mr. Jones,” or “You must be Mrs. Jones,” and be sure to make eye contact.
After greeting patients, you should get some patient information. In days of old, we handed a clipboard to the patient and they filled out their own information. Today, with all the new technology, some offices just hand over an iPad and say, “Please fill this out.” Some offices even request that patients fill out information online before arriving.
Instead, conduct a new patient interview to learn about the patient and begin to build a personal relationship. This interview is the beginning of getting to know the patient—and establishing a relationship. You will learn some of the patient’s health issues and concerns, but at this point, it is still the early stages of that conversation. You can tell the patient, “This is just a conversation to get us started but don’t be surprised if the doctor or hygienist goes into more detail on certain things.”
I recommend an in-person interview for a few reasons. First, it gives the person conducting the interview (ideally, the financial coordinator) a chance to follow up on anything that may need clarification. Second, nothing can replace the relationship-building interaction of meeting with patients (as Dr. Dick Barnes says), “eye-to-eye and knee-to-knee.” It creates a professional intimacy that’s just not possible when the human element is removed. Third, an in-person interview immediately sends a signal to your patients that your practice is unique and caring.
The new patient interview is an uncommon way of getting information about a new patient. A sample of a new patient information form is in the Total Team Training manual (available for Dr. Dick Barnes Group attendees). Use the form as a guide when personally asking your new patients questions, and then write down their answers using their own words.
If the financial coordinator is available, this team member can greet new patients when they arrive and say, “You don’t even need to sit down. Just come with me.” After that brief exchange, you are ready to interview the new patient.
Setting the Stage
The new patient interview also gives team members an opportunity to deliver key messages about your practice. These messages generally include what your patient can expect during his or her visit and why your practice stands apart from others. I discuss the messages in the sections that follow.
Keep in mind that the new patient interview should be conducted with anyone who is new to the office—emergency patients and second-opinion patients are often new patients. Schedule about ten minutes for this interview before the appointment. That way, the interview won’t interfere with any chair time. I give some grace if the interview goes to fifteen minutes, but it shouldn’t take any longer than that.
Also, the interview should take place in a private location—not in the reception area. Sometimes you have to get creative with spatial issues, but I’ve seen offices utilize a table and two chairs in an alcove when necessary and make it work. A lot of offices have consultation rooms—which is an ideal place. Some offices hold these interviews in a clinical operatory until they can figure out how to rearrange space. I prefer not taking up time in a production chair, but if that’s all you have, then that’s all you have!
The privacy issue is important because a patient is more likely to be forthcoming with personal information in a private setting (and it is important for HIPAA compliance, too). A private area makes the interaction much more personalized and engaging. By holding a private conversation with your new patients, you send a signal to the patient that they are receiving a higher level of service.
Make sure there are no interruptions during this interview. Dr. Dick Barnes said, “Your patients need to feel your compulsive interest in them. There should be no interruptions during this crucial visit.” Again, the morning huddle is a great time to communicate to team members when the new patients are expected to arrive and that no one should interrupt the meeting.
The financial coordinator is the ideal person to conduct the new patient interviews because when he or she needs to speak with the patient later on, they already have an established relationship. The person who conducts the interviews (whether it’s the financial coordinator or another member of your team) should view it as more than just another task to check off on a to-do list—again, it’s about connecting with patients.
During the interview, the financial coordinator should write down the answers from the patient in the patient’s own words and follow up on any areas of concern. When discussing questions with a new patient, the financial coordinator should utilize both active listening and reflective listening. Active listening is when you ask a question and then you look at the patient as they answer. Active listening includes eye contact, nodding, smiling, and listening carefully to the answer.
Reflective listening is saying back to the patient whatever he or she has said to you. The key aspect of this type of listening is repeating verbatim what the patient says—not changing those words into the clinical terms. If a patient says, “needle,” write down “needle.” If a patient says, “shot,” use that term. You don’t want the patient to feel ignorant because he or she may not divulge anything more.
The Mighty Five
During the interview, the interviewer has the opportunity to communicate important messages about the uncommon service the patient is about to receive. The messages should be delivered in a natural, conversational style—not interrogation style. You can and should adapt the messages to each patient’s responses. With some practice, this process can become totally natural.
I recommend five key messages to communicate during this interview. The five subjects that should be addressed are: referrals, insurance, financial issues, fear, and sterilization. During the interview, it’s important to deliver all five messages—don’t skip or eliminate any messages.
1. The Referral Message: We consider it an honor when a patient is referred to our office by someone else.
Often, new patients are referred to your office from friends, family members, or co-workers. You should always ask new patients, “May I ask who referred you to our office today?” If a new patient answers that he or she was referred by an existing patient, say, “We consider it such a compliment when patients are referred to us by someone we know. We hope that all our patients like the practice so much that they will tell anyone who might need a new dentist—family members, neighbors, friends, and coworkers—about us.”
Additionally, let patients know that the reason you ask this question is because so many of your patients are referrals and that you would like to thank the person who recommended your office (and by all means, if you promise to send a thank-you, be sure to follow through).
More and more often, patients are finding dental providers from an Internet search engine or from an approved insurance provider list (for more information, see “Out of Site, Out of Mind,” Aesthetic Dentistry, Spring 2015). If a patient finds your office from such a source, you can still give the referral message during the new patient interview. A good response in such a situation is, “The reason I ask that question about referrals is because a lot of our patients are referred by other patients. We hope you love it here as much as they do.”
In addition to asking about referrals, dental offices should track the sources of all their referrals so that they can identify which sources are the most effective at generating new business.
2. The Insurance Message: We are going to research and help you maximize the benefits of your insurance.
Always ask new patients if there is any dental insurance to be considered. If a patient responds affirmatively, reply with, “Great! It’s lucky that you have this benefit. We pride ourselves in researching all our patients’ benefits. Our goal is to help you understand the maximum in your deductible and where it applies.”
Unlike some practices, your office will let patients know how their insurance works, and if they have questions about insurance benefits, they should feel free to ask anytime. You don’t want patients to miss out on important treatments because they don’t understand their insurance benefits. If a patient doesn’t have insurance, don’t dwell on it. Just move on to other questions.
3. The Financial Message: We promise to communicate with you regarding any charges and we will let you know in advance what treatments we are doing.
Follow the insurance question with a financial one. The interviewer should ask, “Are you concerned about the finances required to return your teeth to excellent health?” If the patient responds affirmatively, say, “Well, you will be glad you’re here because you will always know about everything in advance—before we do any treatments. And we have ways to help patients fit treatments into their budgets.” If a patient doesn’t express any money concerns, say, “I was not assuming that money is an issue for you, but we simply ask all patients that question. However, you will be glad you are here because you will always know about everything before we do anything.”
4. The Fear Message: We care about our patients and their specific concerns and will work to ease any fears.
Most patients volunteer their fears without a lot of prodding. Ask, “Do you have any fears?” Keep the question short, and if the patient says, “yes,” then let him or her explain why. Don’t assume that because a patient has a fear of the drill that you know why. After a patient has finished the explanation, simply reassure him or her how gentle the dentist is and that you will let the assistant and the hygienist know about their past experience and concerns. Reassure the patient that no pain or discomfort that was experienced in the past will be repeated in your office.
5. The Sterilization Message: Our patients’ health and well-being is our number one concern. As such, everything we use in the office is either hand disposable or heat sterilized.
When you ask patients about their health history, also ask about a diagnosis of hepatitis or HIV. No matter what the response, reassure patients that all the tools used in the office are heat sterilized and hand disposable (if applicable). This proactive approach relieves anxiety for most patients. Communicate to patients that their well-being is your number one concern.
I’ve visited some practices where, before booking an appointment, a prospective patient has asked to tour the office and see where the office cleans their instruments. Giving patients a message about the sterilization practices of your office may address any questions regarding potential contamination before they arise.
The Million-Dollar Question
During the new patient interview, always ask what I call the “million-dollar question.” It’s a million-dollar question because once you start asking the question to your patients, your practice can increase revenues dramatically (whether you already make a million dollars or want to increase by a million more)! Ask patients, “Are you dissatisfied with your teeth and their appearance?”
I always ask this question just before the financial questions. It prompts patients to think about their smile and what they would change if they could.
When asking the million-dollar question, use reflective listening. Remember, the interview is intended connect with a patient, not to offer treatment ideas. Avoid any temptation to offer solutions when the patient responds to the question. For example, if a patient says, “I’m missing this back tooth and when I smile you can see it,” it is not appropriate to suggest implants as a solution.
Merely respond by saying, “I’m so glad you’re here! If anyone can help you with your missing back tooth, it’s our doctor.” Alternatively, you might say, “I’m glad you brought that up! I’ll let the doctor know you inquired about it.”
Again, don’t make any assumptions about what you might hear in response to this question. Some people are more concerned about how their teeth function and some people are more concerned with the appearance of their smile. The concern may even be a combination of both. After thousands of interviews, I’ve learned that different patients want different things. Just recently, I heard a gentleman respond to the million-dollar question with, “I just want to be able to eat corn on the cob for the rest of my life.” Of course, the patient was ultimately communicating that he wanted strong teeth, but I made sure to write down his wishes in his own words.
Walk the Talk
After finishing the interview, it’s a good time to ask patients to sign the HIPAA form and consent for the treatment (if appropriate) and make copies of all the documents (even if you’re in a hurry). Then give patients a copy of the HIPAA form and excuse yourself to pass along the information to the next person who will be interacting with the patient.
The information should then be quickly communicated to other staff members in the practice, including the doctor. Review the interview form and highlight any important information—such as allergies to medication, dental fears due to past experiences, and any other critical information that patients may volunteer. That way, the hygienist and doctor can quickly see the most critical information without taking the time to read it in detail if time is short.
After the interview is complete, invite the patient to relax while you make sure that the operatory is ready for him or her and that the chair is free. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the operatory is ready for the patient without checking first. At this time, I typically leave the patient for a moment and find the hygienist. I briefly tell the hygienist the highlights of what I’ve learned about the patient. Then when I return to the patient with the hygienist, I introduce them to each other.
Once you’ve communicated critical pieces of information from the patient to the dental team, the hygienist and the doctor are prepared for the new patient and can tailor the experience to his or her needs. This process helps keep everyone in your team on the same page. When the process is completed, the hygienist can tell a fearful patient, “I understand that you’re very concerned about this procedure. And I’m going to be gentle so hopefully you’ll have the best experience you’ve ever had in a dental office.”
During the morning huddle on the following day, the financial coordinator should let everyone know about the new patients from the day before. He or she should say, “Before we discuss today’s schedule, I want to share with you some information about the two new patients who came in yesterday.” It’s likely that not everyone in the practice learned about the patients from the day before, so it brings everyone up-to-date.
Don’t let the opportunity to make a good first impression pass you by. Your practice needs new patients every day in order to be successful. By taking the time to greet new patients in person and talk to them individually, your practice will stand out from other dental practices in the best possible ways. Remember to deliver all five messages, which highlight important characteristics of your practice. And always think of the phrase, “We are uncommon.” Apply these uncommon practices to the new patient experience in your office. It can change new patients into patients for life.