The Digital Age Changes It All

May 1, 2003
Patients in today's digital world expect businesses to have tools like Caller ID, Web sites, digital cameras, computer presentations, and more. You must decide when to embrace these technologies, not if!

by Tom Hedge, DDS

The digital age has arrived and it will change everything we do, from the way we practice dentistry to the way we interact with our patients. This change will be driven not only by the dentist's desires to employ high technology, but by our patients' expectations.

New-patient visits

Consultants have been teaching us for years that we must structure our new-patient visits in a certain way if we are to be successful. A clinical examination, models, photos, and radiographs were to be collected on the first visit. Prophys were saved for subsequent visits. Later, the doctor was to scrutinize and examine the information to come up with a treatment plan. The patient would return a week later to hear about what the doctor decided to do.

It is time to change this model. We live in an "I want it yesterday" and "my time is valuable" world. Digital applications such as cameras, email, cell phones, computers, and the Internet have drastically changed our lives. Since our patients' lives have changed, their expectations of what we do in dentistry have changed too.

Today's new-patient visit should be a showcase of high technology, but also a personalized, high-touch event. It all starts with the initial phone call, which shows up as an unfamiliar name on caller ID. It is best if this call is handled by someone who is not interrupted by other phone calls, collecting fees, and making appointments. The relationship starts here. At the conclusion of this phone call, we tell new patients that they can expect a "welcome package" in the mail and invite them to visit our Web site.

On the appointed day, the team knows that the person with the unfamiliar face who walks in at the appropriate time is very likely to be our new patient. The new-patient coordinator who took the initial phone call greets this patient. The relationship continues. We give the new patient a tour of our office, followed by an informal chat with the NP coordinator. The NP coordinator will find out why the patient is here and take his dental and medical history. We tell the patient what we will be doing that day and ask if that is all right. If the patient has no concerns and no history of periodontal disease or restorations and just wants a "cleaning," we will arrange for that to happen. Otherwise, the next step is to meet the doctor and get digital photos and X-rays.

At this point, the NP coordinator summons the doctor. This is a great time to play a patient-education module, like CAESY, about one of the patient's concerns. If there are no specific concerns, we play a module about the initial visit that explains all of the components of a dental examination. The NP coordinator gives the details to the doctor, who then goes to the consultation room to meet the patient.

After a brief chat, the doctor or assistant takes digital images of the patient's face, smile, and teeth. Examples of recommended shots can be found at www.digitalden tistry.info. X-rays immediately follow this, while the doctor and the NP coordinator adjourn to the conference room to discuss a treatment plan based on the digital images. Another patient-education module can be played while the X-rays are being processed. It is amazing what you will see on digital images — wear facets, abfractions, fractured restorations, recurrent decay, smile asymmetry, unaesthetic tooth proportion, inflammation of the gingival, etc. Once a potential treatment plan is established, the patient and the NP coordinator review the images.

The key to this process is the fact that the NP coordinator can spend as much time as necessary discussing the treatment plan, the doctor's skills, scheduling, finances, etc. At the conclusion of this meeting, the doctor will perform a clinical exam to confirm the earlier findings.

The doctor's process is immediate and powerful, and it gives the patient what he wants when he wants it. There is no one-week delay while the doctor decides what to do. Most treatment plans are not that difficult. If they are complicated, you can explain to the patient that this case will require some study. The patient will have already seen the problems and will understand why. If you wish, you can give the patient printed images (or digital images on CD) of the dental condition to take home. However, this is usually unnecessary; for most patients, seeing is believing.

For the past decade, we have been able to make similar presentations for patients with intraoral video cameras, but the resolution, lighting, and image view does not compare to that of the digital camera.

Patient education

Digital technologies allow us to easily reach patients in many new ways that were previously difficult. A practice Web site is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is a way to provide education to patients and to others in the community. If you do not have a Web site for your practice, get one. At the very least, reserve your practice name. You can register for a Web address at www.veresign.com. It costs only $35 per year.

Newsletters become easy and cost-effective to develop and send with a service available

from DentistryOnline (www.dentistryon line.com). Anyone who has attempted to write a newsletter in the past has probably realized that they are time-consuming and expensive to produce. DentistryOnline has an email-based newsletter called Smilelink that makes the process easy and cost-effective. Each month, their professional editorial staff writes a fresh set of articles. You can access these articles over the Internet and choose which ones to include. You can even write a section about your own office news. We always add a cosmetic case-of-the-month with before-and-after images. With the click of a button, the e-newsletter can be sent to all of your patients who have email addresses. There are no printing or mailing costs. The only cost is the monthly subscription fee of $69.

There are many reasons to get patient email addresses besides for the newsletter. These addresses serve as a back-up contact opportunity and allow you to send immediate messages to your patients at no charge.

Smile reminder

There is a brand-new reason to collect your patients' email addresses, in addition to their cell phone numbers, pager numbers, and PDA addresses. Smile Reminder is a new company that facilitates communication with your patients via these means. The Smile Reminder software syncs with your dental-management software (such as Dentrix, Softdent, Eaglesoft, etc.) and pulls out patient names, device addresses, and appointment times. It then allows you to set up a schedule of reminders that will be sent to your patients via their email, cell phone, pager, and PDA. The reminders can be sent the week before, the day before, and/or two hours before the appointment. You can send different messages each time. The message always includes the patient's salutation and appointment time.

The text messages are transmitted via SMS, or Short Message Service, which is less disruptive than a phone call. By next year, it is predicted that 80 percent of individuals in the United States over age 12 will have a cell phone, and it will usually be with them.

Missed appointments are lethal to practice overhead and profitability. In most practices, missed appointments result in more than $100,000 of lost production. Smile Reminder can help reduce missed appointments. It costs $199 for the initial setup and $199 a month. Once the system is set up, messages are sent automatically. You only have to sync it once a day to update the changed appointments.

Patients in today's digital world expect top-notch businesses to have tools like caller ID, Web sites, digital cameras, computer presentations, CAESY, and Smile Reminder. All of these tools are cost-effective and will result in increased production. You must decide when to embrace these technologies, not if!

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