Running a Thriving Practice in Trying Times

Posted by Scott Livingston on Jul 2, 2020 7:00:00 AM
Scott Livingston

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The long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on dental practices is still to be determined. When that story is told, it will likely be measured in increments of months and even years. The amount of dentistry canceled and the number of dental practices suffering from the subsequent loss of revenue is and will be far-reaching in impact. As practices begin the process of recovery, having a plan based on data will be very important. It might seem that simply filling your schedule as quickly as possible would be sufficient, but such isn’t the case. Focusing on scheduling the patients who have the greatest need for treatment, and who can have the most immediate financial impact on your business should be the centerpiece of every practice team’s recovery plan.

Let’s get right to work here on sharing ways you can use data to help your dental practice to recover quickly. To be clear, this isn’t about padding a practice owner’s vacation fund or coming up with a deposit for a new Tesla. Those are great goals, but more likely luxuries for another day. This is about survival. According to a recent article on DrBicuspid.com,

“Before COVID-19, the dental industry was expected to have one of its best years, with projected dental spending tagged at $150 billion. Now, spending is projected to be about one-third of the initial estimate: $52 billion.” This stunning loss of $100 billion in dental spending touches everyone. To accelerate your recovery and ensure the survival of your practice, you need a growth strategy with real teeth in it.

Here’s what that plan should include:

  • Identifying the right patients
  • Scheduling the right patients

For the sake of clarity, our definition of the “right patients” includes those with the most urgent need for treatment (e.g. those with aggressive decay, significant oral pain, or other similarly time-sensitive needs) as well as those who are most likely to accept treatment, have a consistent history of prompt payment (both the patient premium and insurance portion), and who will readily schedule and keep scheduled appointments. Simply put, they are ideal patients. Your practice is going to need as many of these kind of patients as it’s possible for you to schedule.

Identify the Right Patients

When asked about the best way to add production to a schedule, most quickly answer “add new patients.” This seems valid, right? Actually, the reality is anything but. Although new patients are important, they are not the best source for increasing production and profitability in a dental practice. Why is that? There are only two ways to increase production in a dental practice. That’s right, only two:

Increase the total number of patients, or increase the amount of production per patient per visit.

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According to Dental Intelligence Vice President of Finance, Christopher Toyn, “In the first 4-5 years after a practice opens there’s a lot of volatility in growth. After this, most practices plateau.” This is when panic can set in and the impulse, understandably, is to increase marketing spend in order to drive more patients to the practice.

“Most practices do pretty well in adding new patients,” said Toyn. “What they don’t do as well is retaining and rescheduling both new and existing patients. Even with high growth in new patients, most practices also have a high new patient attrition rate, which leads to a plateau or even a decline in overall growth.”

So why aren’t new patients the best way to quickly add revenue?

Here’s what data from thousands of U.S. based practices tells us about new patients:

  • They have a much higher rate of appointment cancellation.
  • They’re more likely not to accept and/or schedule treatment, and also more likely to cancel before receiving needed treatment.
  • New patients are harder to retain and more likely to leave when a new and better offer comes along from another dentist.
  • Extra time is needed to “onboard” new patients, which impacts production per hour. Office tours, developing relationships, insurance verification, paperwork, getting to know staff, etc.

In other words, right now is certainly not the right time to focus on adding new patients. There is a better way – it’s the patients you already have.

Dental Intelligence has invested thousands of hours and significant financial resources to build our exclusive Patient Finder. The Patient Finder does just that – it finds existing patients needing treatment according to powerful custom filters selected by the user. To make the Patient Finder even more relevant, we’ve recently added new COVID-19-specific filters to quickly identify patients whose appointments and treatment were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are just a few of the 14 filters we built to help you identify specific existing patients that need to be reengaged and rescheduled as soon as possible, even if your practice hasn’t opened yet:

  • COVID Hygiene Broken & Unscheduled (Since 3/16/2020) 
  • COVID Hygiene PPV > $150 
  • COVID Restoration Broken & Unscheduled (Since 3/16/2020) 
  • COVID Hygiene Preferred Patients (Post Pandemic) 
  • COVID Unscheduled List - Hygiene 
  • COVID Abandoned Patient Appointments 
  • COVID This Week & Next Week Scheduled Patients Hygiene 

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Selecting any one of these filters builds a list of patients in order of their likelihood of scheduling and accepting needed dentistry. No more searching through patient lists and guessing which ones will be most likely to answer the phone. The Patient Finder does all of that work for you so you can focus your efforts on connecting with these patients.

One more important point here regarding active patients. Active patients are defined as those patients who have completed an appointment sometime in the past 18 months. Our data shows that it’s really important to contact unscheduled patients as soon as possible after they’ve left your practice. The larger the gap between that last visit and a follow-up call from your practice, the less likely the patient will be to reschedule. You’re no doubt already aware of this fact. What you may not know is that there is a solution for keeping track of these unscheduled patients, which can largely eliminate the problem of patients falling through the cracks. After all, what’s the point of adding new patients if you don’t convert them into existing patients?

Our data shows that, on average, only 79% of patients completing a hygiene appointment schedule their next hygiene appointment prior to leaving the dental practice. (In case you’re interested, national benchmarks for several Key Performance Indicators are included below). We call this Hygiene Reappointment %. This metric is an important leading indicator of active patients who are at risk of becoming inactive patients in future months if not rescheduled.

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Another important metric that relates to existing patients is Hygiene Pre-appointment %. This is the percentage of all hygiene patients seen in the past 18 months (i.e. active patients) that currently have a scheduled appointment. As you can see in the numbers above, the average here is 62%, meaning that almost 40% of hygiene patients in an average practice don’t have a next scheduled appointment. That’s a significant amount of unscheduled production that could be added to your calendar. Even a 10% increase here could translate into many additional patients receiving treatment as well as a healthier bottom line.

To summarize, put your time and efforts toward helping your existing patients to schedule and receive needed treatment. They urgently need the care you can provide, and they are a more efficient means of helping your practice to recover financially than a new patient would be.

Schedule the Right Patients

Once you’ve identified the patients you want to start reaching out to, is there a best way to do so? There are many excellent patient communication and patient scheduling options to choose from these days. Dental Intelligence has taken a unique approach to scheduling that fully integrates with your practice management software (Open Dental, Eaglesoft, Dentrix, etc.) and which also enables you to improve the patient relationship.

Scheduling patients is essentially done in either or both of two ways: You contact the patient to schedule, or the patient contacts you. Realizing that there are several ways that this contact can occur, Dental Intelligence has built tools that will greatly improve the effectiveness of either method.

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With some practices still closed or running on reduced hours and staff, it’s probably more challenging for a patient to get ahold of your practice to schedule right now. Why not make it easy for them and provide a scheduling tool on your website that allows 24/7 scheduling without any effort on your part? That’s exactly what Dental Intelligence Online Scheduling offers you. Just as someone might reserve a flight, a car rental, or a restaurant table, DI Online Scheduling allows patients to schedule an appointment with your practice simply by visiting your website on a computer or mobile device.

According to Decipher Research, 81% of patients would prefer to schedule their appointment online. Adding DI Online Scheduling can raise your conversion of web traffic-to-booked appointment by 35-70%, and it can be placed anywhere patients are looking for dentists, including your website, Google, Facebook, insurance partners, dental product partners, and anywhere else you own and control your web presence. To learn more about DI Online Scheduling, visit us here.

But what about when you are the one initiating the contact? Again, Dental Intelligence has you covered. Within our platform we’ve built intuitive patient communication tools that let you call, text, or email a patient while instantly capturing those communications in a place they can easily be found when needed.

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After creating or selecting a filtered patient list in the Patient Finder you can then begin reaching out to each listed patient. As mentioned above, this can be done using our text/email tools within each Patient Card.

When calling one of these prioritized patients, emphasize the importance of scheduling treatment right away by highlighting the fact that they have been moved to the front of the line and that there are many others requesting appointments. Creating a sense of urgency will help them to appreciate your call and increase the likelihood of scheduling right then. Remember the goal here – providing the right treatment, to the right patients, and at the right time. During your first weeks back, your schedule needs to be packed with these patients. You NEED those first few months to be front-loaded with high-need, revenue-generating patients.

But what about the rest of your patients? Don’t they matter? Of course they matter! This is a great opportunity to connect with them as well. It makes perfect sense to reach out to your less-urgent patients right now and have a conversation about their oral health. This will allow you to see how they’re doing and to let them know you can’t wait to see them again. If they were a regular hygiene patient that was coming in every three months and they’re a month or more overdue, address that with them. Express your excitement to see them and schedule a time for them to come in as soon as there’s an opening on your schedule.

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Perhaps that might sound something like this: “Susan, we're trying to rearrange your schedule to make sure that we get patients in that first have the highest need for clinical care. We know that you have a very healthy mouth. We can’t wait to see you again for your routine maintenance. We need to move your appointment back just a couple weeks if that’s okay so we can assist some of our patients who are having some real health problems right now. Thank you for understanding, and we’ll see you on July 10th.”

Your patients will understand. They’ll recognize your concern and their appreciation for your practice will increase. If they don’t want to wait, do your best to work them in as soon as possible. Most will be great with waiting. We’re all in this together.

Recovery is a process and not an event, right? It will look different for each dental practice. What isn’t unique is the importance of identifying and scheduling the patients that most need treatment and who can help you see the most immediate financial impact on your practice.

Dental Intelligence has built powerful tools to help your dental practice to recover and grow. We're committed to helping you achieve the goals that are most important to you. Visit us here to get started today.