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Digital patient communication portals and practice profitability

Feb. 1, 2013
In the brave, and sometimes intimidating world of the Internet, the very manner in which we communicate is dramatically changing.

by Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA

In the brave, and sometimes intimidating world of the Internet, the very manner in which we communicate is dramatically changing. Face-to-face interactions, posted letters or cards, and phone conversations are fast being replaced by digital communications. These include emails, text messaging, Facebook posts, and tweets.

Patients' communication preferences have dramatically changed with the evolution of the Internet. Patients increasingly demand that the practice communicate with them where they are -- online.

A national longitudinal study by Sesame Communications found that 97% of dental patients would rather click than call the office, while 90.7% noted online access to the practice and their records was "much more convenient." Dentists have gradually embraced this new reality, recognizing the fact that delivering personalized, quality service to patients requires them to communicate in new ways.

Interestingly, this new world presents an unexpected win-win for the practice. Compelling research data confirms that digital communications are not only about patient preference, but pointedly about practice effectiveness and efficiency. This dramatically drives incremental production, collections, and profitability.

These important benefits are derived from a digital communication system's ability to consistently communicate and educate patients throughout their lifecycle in the practice, from helping them better understand and accept treatment, to ensuring they keep their appointments, pay their bills, complete treatment, remain engaged in the recare system, and refer family and friends to the practice.

Practice production

1) Keeping the schedule full by reducing costly last-minute cancellations and no-shows

Traditionally, practices manage appointment confirmations with systems that require costly, time-consuming mail notifications and phone calls to patients. Dentists can easily attest to the significant shortcomings of such manual systems, including inconsistent implementation (ever had your team fail to confirm an important, high-production patient?), and variability due to the human element (ever had a team member not follow a confirmation script or system?). These scenarios greatly impact practice performance and increase the team's stress level.

Automating patient confirmations removes these risk factors and allow the practice to manage patient communications in a more consistent, reliable, and predictable manner. A significant 87.6% of surveyed dental professionals agree that automated patient reminders give them the peace of mind to know that all patients are consistently contacted before their appointments. Automated reminders can be delivered via voice, email, or text message. Automated systems reduce outbound calls and administrative staff engagement, and 77% of surveyed dentists say they reduce no-shows.

2) Increasing case acceptance through continued patient education

Research consistently shows that, on average, consumers require seven messages before they make a purchase. Assuming this statistic holds true for dentistry, it is important to ensure the practice continues to educate patients regarding diagnosed incomplete treatment.

Instead of the traditional methods of repeated presentations, phone calls, and "one-size-fits-all" printed newsletters, a practice can achieve new levels of consistency and effectiveness by automating patient education and customizing newsletters and email communications to a patient's specific diagnosed and incomplete treatment needs.

The benefit of implementing an automated patient communication platform is the practice's ability to deliver more consistent, predictable patient communications in an efficient, cost-effective manner. This results in a more predictable schedule and production for the practice.

Practice collections

Managing collections in a practice is a priority since this defines cash flow and profitability. Collections are a complex undertaking that involve many aspects. This includes case and fee presentation, securing a down payment, collecting insurance benefits, managing practice collection of patient responsibility, administering payment plans, and managing accounts receivable and delinquencies.

Considering the fact that close to 60 cents of each dollar produced in a practice goes to cover expenses, it is obvious why it is critically important to collect all fees for services delivered. Of particular concern are past due accounts receivable, which represent outstanding balances on completed patient treatment.

Traditionally, practices have managed collections through systems including repeated monthly billing, collection letters, and collection calls. This is a sensitive area to manage and may put the relationship with a patient at risk. Practices are often reluctant to initiate collection action, allowing accounts to become more delinquent and a higher risk for a write-off.

Digital patient communication portals can manage collections more consistently, predictably, efficiently, and effectively. While regular monthly billing addresses the current accounts, an automated online collection strategy can improve collections in two key ways:

  1. Provide patients with 24-7 discrete access to their accounts with the ease of paying their bills online via credit card. Interestingly, in a survey of dental patients, 90.3% stated they are comfortable with online bill payments for their dental services.
  2. Delinquent accounts can be digitally managed via discreet automated past due balance email reminders, informing a patient of the outstanding balance. Research has uncovered some key facts -- within 24 hours of sending an automated past due balance email reminder, 32% of patients make an online payment. Within 48 hours, 50% make an online payment. This is important since the practice can promptly collect the past due funds without risking damage to their relationship with a patient, and without investing great effort in collection activities.


Digital patient communications contribute to higher practice production and collection, which greatly impacts profitability. Transitioning to a digital solution not only saves, on average, $36,000 per year, but more significantly allows patients to become compliant with their treatment and financial obligations. Not only does automation lower overhead and improve practice effectiveness and efficiency, but more importantly it also helps the practice achieve higher patient retention and satisfaction.

Though it can be somewhat intimidating to venture into the digital age, with consumers embracing online communications, staying on the sidelines is no longer an option. When selecting a provider for your online platform, seek an expert with specific and focused dental experience, one who can provide an integrated solution that synergizes all your digital communication channels while providing you with real-time measurements of effectiveness.

Diana P. Friedman, MA, MBA, is president and chief executive officer of Sesame Communications. She has a 20-year success track record in leading dental innovation and marketing. Throughout her career, Friedman has served as a recognized practice-management consultant, author, and speaker. She holds an MA in sociology and MBA from Arizona State University.

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