The we care practice

July 1, 2000
Hypothetical situation, OK? I receive my daughter`s "You are due for recall" letter from my family dentist in January. She is due in February.

Eileen Morrissey

Hypothetical situation, OK? I receive my daughter`s "You are due for recall" letter from my family dentist in January. She is due in February.

I fail to make her appointment, and it`s 100 percent my fault. In early March, I call the office, only to hear the answering machine state that the doctor and staff are out for the week, but to please leave a message. I do so, clearly stating my guilty behavior and asking for a call back upon their return so that my daughter`s February recall appointment now can be scheduled for March.

It`s now the end of the third week in March, and I have yet to hear back from my family dental practice. Two weeks have gone by and no return phone call. And you know what? This has happened before - twice before, in fact!

In my role as a dental-study club coordinator, I have the opportunity to listen to some of the finest practice-management speakers nationwide. Each has a different message, but all preach the following message consistently: In this competitive era of health care, the way to prosper is to cultivate and perpetuate relationships with our existing patient base.

Marketing efforts can tax the dentist`s budget severely. "It costs five times as much to attract a new patient as it does to retain an existing one," is a quote by Sally McKenzie that I have used in my own lectures. We must wow our existing patients, so that they will spread the word. We should never underestimate the power of word of mouth in practice-building.

The practice that I take my daughter to doesn`t accept insurance plans. My husband`s small business provides our family with a dental benefit, but I have chosen to disregard the dentists who are part of that PPO and pay out of pocket to maintain my "relationship" with our family dentist. I currently am rethinking this decision.

Ironically, I hear dentists complaining constantly about the holes in their hygienist`s recare schedule. Frankly, this practice`s apathy toward my request for a simple recall visit absolutely floors me. This is especially irritating since my call was in response to the letter that the practice sent me! Regardless of whether or not appointments are available, surely no practice is so busy that the staff can`t acknowledge a patient`s phone call - even one of a non-emergency nature - after two weeks` time.

I`m not going to make a scene or a fuss. But it`s now three strikes, and this office is out. And please don`t shake your finger at me and tell me I should confront this dentist. I don`t feel like it!

If you say this is a cop-out, you are diffusing the basic issue. This is exactly how practice-management experts say it happens.

Patients rarely complain about unsatisfactory service. They just quietly walk away. Competition in health care being what it is, the educated consumer knows that he or she can find other options at the drop of a hat.

In the interest of putting a positive spin on this negative-sounding article, let`s hope that offices out there (including yours!) can learn from this experience. Returning a phone call is a simple courtesy, and one that should be at the very core of basic customer service.

Doctors cannot be at the front desk. They are far too busy to monitor patient-telephone contact. They need to be able to delegate this task to someone who appreciates the magnitude of its importance.

Doctors must instill, early on, the imperative need for prompt follow-up. Then, they must periodically check up on the individuals who assume this role for the practice and reiterate its importance. Patients should never feel disregarded. Relationships, at their most basic, are about making people perceive that they matter.

Reading this, and hearing the frustration in my words, you might actually be thinking that this is not a hypothetical situation. Hey, do you know any quality "relationship-based" dental practices out there? Hypothetically, I may be in need of a referral.

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