Dental hygienists are often underacknowledged and undervalued in terms of their overall practice impact. In part two, I discussed how many dentists that we've worked with have seen drastic improvements in their practices due to good internal coordination (scheduling, fees, insurance) and maximizing hygiene production. Now I'll review remuneration and the hygienist's importance in the doctor-patient relationship.
There's been much discussion and change during the past few years on exactly how to pay hygienists. This is of concern to both hygienists and owners, and understandably so. There is no single answer that fits every practice.
For the most part, there are principles that are common in all practices:
1. Ensure the hygienist is rewarded for his or her skill and actual chargeable production.
2. Do not reward the hygienist for holes in the schedule and added time where production is not occurring.
A personal touch
Regardless of whether the hygienist is paid by the hour, day, percentage of production, or products sold, a very simple way to maintain a full schedule is to let patients know the hygienist cares about them. By keeping communication relatively constant, patients are more likely to show up. Simple handwritten notes, postcards, or similar personal touches make all the difference in the world. While e-mails and texts have become the norm, and there's nothing wrong with this, human contact cannot be replaced by electronic communication.
If the hygienist has a full schedule, it's still a good practice to send one note per day to a patient. Ten notes can be sent during an unfilled appointment slot. Notes are best received if they are not always about past due accounts. The notes that ask how someone is doing or express something of mutual interest are the ones that are most warmly received because they involve the person, not just the teeth. These are actions that can be done to help ensure patients return and also refer others.
You will need to have someone on the team with the time to do this. It's well worth hiring someone, at least part-time, to assist the hygienist with these projects.
Here are a few more examples:
1. Send e-mails from the hygiene department each month. Do not make them all about dental health. Include tips, recipes, jokes, and interactive invitations that involve a reply from patients. Other things that do well are photos, announcements, new products approved by the doctor, and new home hygiene techniques approved by the doctor. This is real communication, personal and professional, not purchased or canned.
2. Sent texts from the office cell phone with current profile photos of the person sending them, or of the snow outside your window, or of a bird in a tree outside, along with the appointment reminders. One caveat: If you use an outside digital service, these texts must be a personal communication from the hygienist, one that the hygienist writes or dictates herself, so it is actually her communication. People know when you send an auto-generated text. A true personal communication is much better received.
3. Send letters of invitation and reactivation that include a gift of a no-charge exam to patients you haven't seen in a while. Follow this up with a phone call within one week to see if the patient received the invitation and if he or she would like to make an appointment. Focus on prophies. Patients want them. Patients who are five years past due are the most financially remunerative, followed by four years, six, three, two, and one. If your practice is more than five years old, this single action is dynamite for increasing the return of past patients. But remember, there must be a phone call within one week of the letter of invitation. So send only as many as you can follow up in one week's time.
Personal patient contact is the single weakest point in all of the practices I have consulted for in the last 30 years.
Last but not least, the importance of your hygienist
The hygienist is the most underacknowledged staff member in your practice. Don't underestimate this statement. Hygienists need to attend all staff meetings and be a huge part of the team. If a hygienist is not full-time, be sure to arrange weekly staff meetings when he or she is there. Hygienists want to work in coordination with the team, and it's imperative that they do so. Publicly increase the hygienist's importance to patients' health.
It's amazing how the hygiene schedule can fill up when the hygienist is on fire with purpose and pride. That purpose and pride is there, to greater or lesser degrees, all the time. Make sure you bring it to the forefront by being direct and consistent with your acknowledgment and validation. This reminds hygienists of all that is good and keeps them engaged with why they chose the profession.
My hat's off to your hygienists, and to you for all that you do to help people. I hope these three articles have assisted you in building better, more profitable relationships with your patients.
Kevin Wilson is CEO of Sterling, an award-winning management consulting firm that has twice appeared on the Inc. 500 list of America's fastest growing, privately held companies. Founded in 1983, the firm has delivered more than 500,000 hours of business consulting and completed more than 135,000 training sessions among 175,000 business professionals from 1,700 cities throughout the United States. Wilson is the author of Personnel: Your Most Valuable Resource or Greatest Burden (2010). He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit SterlingDentists.com for more information.
Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part series on building a better, stronger practice through your hygiene department. Read parts one and two at dentaleconomics.com. The articles appeared in the August and September issues