The dental industry is consistently changing and evolving, even more so in the aftermath of the pandemic. Our industry is one of the most dynamic industries in health care. Elements such as technology, marketing, third-party payers, dental education, and more impact how our practices function and how we seek success. The business of dentistry has become more complicated over the years. The same elements that make our field dynamic and allow for growth have added a layer of complexity to our daily workload. And in most urban settings, the challenge is growing as markets become more saturated. But there is one thing that has been consistent no matter how many changes have impacted the industry: patient care is central to our identity and our purpose. That’s why any conversations about practice philosophy, growth, and marketing are always centered around patients. Who do we seek to serve?
In almost every practice, there are favorite patients. You know the ones…the patients whose names on the schedule in the morning huddle cause the team to rejoice. The patients who bring a smile to everyone’s faces—from the back office to the front. These patients fit in well with our practice model; they connect with us as humans. If we could clone them and create an entire practice with people just like them, we would.
Often, we fail to quantify what makes some people click with our team and, conversely, what makes us dread to see other names on the schedule. There is a psychological basis for finding the right people to market to and invite into our practices. This psychological concept is called consensual validation—the idea that two different people see the world in the same way. They agree on their perspective of observed events, and therefore, their view of reality.
Consensual validation is harder to find in the world than we may think; it is the reason police officers interview multiple witnesses in the aftermath of a crime: to find the maximum level of consensual validation. This concept becomes important to us as dentists when we start considering consensual validation between our perspective of our practice and how a patient perceives our practice. Perceptions of how an appointment went, how well we presented the treatment plan, and how our patient’s experience was can differ between dental professionals and patients. Due to the theory of consensual validation, psychological studies repeatedly demonstrate that we tend to seek out people who are similar to us. We do this on our teams (hire people who are similar to ourselves), we do this in our personal lives with the friends and partners we choose, and we even do it with patients to some extent (or at the very least, patients do it with us). This is, in part, to maximize consensual validation.
Attracting ideal patients
Now this fact, if taken at face value, can be a little dangerous. We do not advocate that dentists seek and market to patients who are only like us (in the spirit of equity, inclusion, and access to care). However, there is value in realizing that when we market to patients who are similar to us in things like practice philosophy, quality of care, pace of practice, and communication style, we may create a more stable patient experience in terms of our intent and impact.
So, what’s our strategy?
First, we have to define who we are. Having a well-articulated mission, vision, and values for the practice helps. Internal reflection or reflection with the team on concepts such as the following also help to outline what makes the practice unique:
• What is our ideal appointment length?
• How full do we like our schedule?
• How many chairs or operatories do we like to run simultaneously?
• What is the optimal flow for the office?
Once we start having conversations around this work, we can start to define our brand and see ourselves through our patients’ eyes.
Second, we have to define our “ideal patient.” This has been a controversial topic in the past. Some may feel that defining an ideal patient is discriminatory, but there is an age-old marketing adage that states, “If you try to be all things to all people, you will end up being nothing to no one.” Of course, as providers, we want to help everyone. We want to help the young child with a toothache who could not go to school, the old diabetic grandmother who wants dentures, and the young CEO who wants her smile to better fit her leadership persona and image. But all of these individuals have different medical needs, dental needs, time needs, education needs, support needs, and attention needs. So, in marketing and in design, our practices must focus on a group of people we can help in the most ideal way possible. This is where the concept of an “ideal patient” comes into play.
We have to define who we are. Having a well-articulated mission, vision, and values for the practice helps.
Sit down with your team and have a brainstorming session. Try to create three or four different virtual profiles of people who would fit into your practice well. You can model them after patients you have had success with. Give them theoretical names, ages, and stories to help you identify which pieces of your practice work well for them and where there may be invisible barriers you had not noticed. Once you have these working caricatures, you can use them to work on marketing, communication, new patient experience, and even recall. It’s a lot easier to design systems and troubleshoot regarding theoretical, yet tangible people than it is when thinking of a patient pool of 1,500 different individuals.
Using this ideal patient model, we can both work on attracting new patients to our practice as well as creating an ideal environment for current patients we want to retain.
Your ideal patient will inevitably be at least a little different from the ideal patient of the practice across the street. A practice’s ideal patient is created by taking team dynamics and the practice philosophy into account. Cities are able to sustain many different dental practices—even many on the same street—because a marketing strategy combined with practice systems designed with the ideal patient in mind can successfully create multiple markets within one geographic location. Realization of this fact opens the door of opportunity for any practice, even in a saturated market.