Tips for practice growth in difficult times

Oct. 1, 2009
Most business leaders agree that at times of market stress, marketing should increase.

by Carol Tekavec, CDA, RDH

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: practice growth, marketing, advertising, patient education, communications, treatment-planning, patient financing, Carol Tekavec.

Most business leaders agree that at times of market stress, marketing should increase. Rather than cutting back on “promotional” activities, putting your practice out in the forefront of your community is recommended. Advertising, per se, can be helpful, depending on how ads are designed. Advertising can also be expensive. Here are a few ideas for promoting a practice that are not expensive, and in some cases, free:

1) Don't neglect your local Yellow Pages. Even in this age of computers and gadgetry, patients who don't have a dentist often still look in the phone book.

2) If you don't already have a Web site, now is the time to set one up. Potential patients who have found you in the Yellow Pages can learn more about you on your Web site. (Be sure you put your Web address in your Yellow Pages ad). Include information about the dentist, his or her background, staff details, special services offered (with pictures), maps, and insurance and payment plans accepted.

3) Develop a newsletter that can be printed, delivered by e-mail, or both. Use the newsletter to showcase office services and/or activities of the dentist and staff. Monthly newsletters can focus on a theme. For example, February is associated with heart health. Feature the relationship between oral health and heart disease in that issue. If a print newsletter is sent to patients, think about including an educational brochure to back up your newsletter articles. (See “Your Mouth Can Make You Sick: How Conditions in the Body Are Related to Conditions in the Mouth” at

4) Word of mouth is still the best way to add new patients to your practice ... and it's free! Ask your current patients for referrals. Reward them with a gift card or small present.

Patient education and communication

1) Make your patient's “first appointment” one that impresses. An impressed new patient will tell several others and drive more business to you!

2) Before meeting the dentist, have a front-desk person or chairside assistant give the patient an office tour. Showing off beautiful and clean surroundings on the way to a private area can go a long way to making that important good first impression on the patient. When the dentist meets with a new patient, he or she should make good notes about the patient's primary areas of concerns. These concerns should be “priority one” items when preparing the patient's treatment plan, even if they are not serious issues.

3) Use “old-fashioned” visual aids, such as models, radiographs, and samples, as well as DVDs, when explaining treatment to patients. Back up staff explanations with patient-centered brochures that truly address the patient's concerns.

4) When presenting a treatment plan, use simple language, focus on the patient's main concerns, and be up front about fees. If the patient wants to “think about it,” don't panic. High-pressure, “closing”-type language can scare patients away in this economy. Asking the patient, “Is there any reason we can't start on your treatment right away?” may inspire him or her to answer, “Yes — money!”

Patient financing options

1) According to ADA surveys, patients with insurance accept more dental treatment and more complete care than those without insurance. Therefore, now may not be the time to drop any dental plans from the office roster. Your patients may be more inclined to continue with routine exams and preventive care when they know that their benefit plans cover a portion of the cost. When these patients do come into the office, other services that they need can be identified and treatment-planned. Also, code and bill your treatment correctly! The Code Revision Committee revises codes every two years. Get a current code book, such as my “Dental Insurance Coding Handbook.”

2) If possible, set up several financing systems for patients to choose from. For example, your local bank might arrange to offer loans to your patients, interest-free, under certain conditions, such as a total over $500 to be repaid no later than one year. Other services such as CareCredit® can help. All offices should be prepared to accept standard credit cards.


1) Patients may want to accept all of your treatment recommendations, but may have a problem with doing everything right now. Complete an initial data base and treatment recommendations with a priorities form to set up an organized plan. (Go to to look at an example.) When your ideal recommendations are identified, plus any alternatives (with both the dentist's and patient's priorities represented), a phased treatment sequence can be mapped out.

2) A detailed treatment conference with appropriate informed consent forms and a written estimate is a must.

3) Offer ideal treatment, but when appropriate, alternatives may also be presented. A patient who accepts an alternative today may go for the “ideal” later on.

4) Try offering a few evening or weekend hours to accommodate patients. This can also facilitate larger cases being accomplished more quickly.

The little things

1) Patients who believe the dentist and staff care about them will have more treatment completed and will refer their friends. Try to think of ways to demonstrate that you care. In the evening, call all patients who received treatment requiring an injection, root-planing, periodontal maintenance, or other invasive services. The dentist should place the call, not a staff member. These follow-up treatment calls can also help reduce after-hours “emergency” calls. Patients can discuss their post-treatment concerns and the dentist can give advice.

2) During treatment, keep an eye out for the patient's comfort. Lip balm, protective eyewear, a soft blanket, a knee or neck pillow, headphones for music or TV, and a tissue in the hand can lesson treatment stress.

3) Patients should be the top focus of the dentist and staff. Don't have private conversations “over” the patient. A letter to “Dear Abby” in my local newspaper recently addressed this very issue. The writer asked Abby what she should do because her dentist and assistant ignored her during her appointments and held long, personal conversations while treating her. Abby told her to change dentists! Any conversations in the operatory should include the patient.

4) Office staff members should remind themselves that the purpose of the office is to care for patients Patients are not a problem — they make paydays possible!

You and your staff may come up with many other ideas to thrive during difficult times. Examples include new equipment or techniques, team education, staff delegation, and increased visibility through participation in charity or community causes.

Regardless of the economic climate, patients need, want, and value dental treatment. We just need to give them a reason to accept it!

Carol Tekavec, CDA, RDH, is the president of Stepping Stones to Success and a practicing dental hygienist. She is a lecturer and consultant to the ADA Council on Dental Practice and a former insurance columnist for Dental Economics®. Visit her Web site at or contact her at (800) 548–2164.

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