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Imagine an Inbox Full of 'Thank-You' Notes!

Oct. 1, 2001
Want to make your patients (very) happy, your staff more efficient, and yourself a hero? Provide your patients with online account information.

by Frith Maier

©Gary Buss @ FPG International

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Want to make your patients (very) happy, your staff more efficient, and yourself a hero? Provide your patients with online account information.

Ever feel like dentistry is a thankless job? When was the last time you got a letter of gratitude from a patient? When Dr. Gib Snow, an orthodontist in Palmdale, Calif., implemented a new technology early this year in his three-office practice, his patients immediately let him know what they thought about it — with a flood of "thank-you" emails:
"I was able to check my daughter's account information online instead of waiting to call the office during business hours."
"It helped me figure out how much to take out of my Flex Plan."
"This is a great service. Thank you for making our lives easier!"
The notes of appreciation went on and on.

"Look, Doc, no no shows!"
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Seattle-based Pt Interactive Inc. calls this technology Ortho Sesame, the online patient-communications system (www.ptinteractive.com). Ortho Sesame integrates with Dr. Snow's practice-management software and provides 'round-the-clock information access for his patients. They simply connect to his Web site, www.drsnow.com, to view their appointments and detailed account information from a password-protected screen.

Ortho Sesame handles complex accounts, including those with multiple patients in a single family or multiple insurance companies. Patients see at a glance what used to take much longer for Dr. Snow's financial coordinator to explain over the phone. Another big way that Ortho Sesame helps Dr. Snow is by sending email appointment confirmations to his patients. The Web service can handle a variety of other types of automated email reminders, such as:

  • Recall list
  • Payment overdue alerts
  • No-show messages

When Dr. Snow's teenage patients receive an electronic birthday card, they get the right number of candles on the cake. As far as they can tell, these email greetings come from Dr. Snow himself. It's actually the Ortho Sesame application-service provider (ASP) doing all the emailing for him! The patients made it clear how they feel about it — in three months, 721 of Dr. Snow's patients registered for the unique reminder service.

Dr. Snow loves hearing all the accolades. "I'm very impressed with this technology," says the Los Angeles-area practitioner. "It allows me to communicate with all of my patients using the Internet."

Dr. Donna Panucci
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The Sesame online patient-communications system is the brainchild of two Seattle-based practitioners. They were frustrated by two costly problems: 1) missed appointments and 2) staff time spent on routine phone calls. In 1999, they hit on a way to improve practice efficiency and took their idea to a software development company. Together, they created proprietary software that solves these problems.

They wanted to eliminate no-shows and save staff time for general dentists as well. The software, Dental Sesame, functions automatically without creating extra work for staff. As the first comprehensive ASP for patient communications in dentistry, the system extracts information already in the doctor's database and manages it on servers with top-shelf security. Ortho Sesame is compatible with all the leading orthodontic software packages. Dental Sesame integrates with general dentistry practice-management software.

Patients love it
Surveys show that the tens of thousands of patients around the country receiving email reminders and greetings from their doctors via Ortho Sesame and Dental Sesame are thrilled to be connected online with their dentists. Over 99 percent report that it is more convenient to get their questions answered online compared to calling their doctor's office. The demand for online patient communications is not just a "big city" phenomenon. Pt Interactive's Web service is popular from Tampa to Tulsa and beyond. Several common themes come through in patient comments, and they appreciate the autonomy it gives them. "As our insurance plan changes, we are able to refer quickly to the year-to-date (YTD) payments, planned expenses, etc., and not get tied up on the phone. We can do our financial homework even when the office is closed. We love it!" wrote parent Susan Conrad of Ellisville, Mo.

So many people rely on email for managing their professional relationships that doctors are clearly tapping into a powerful vein when their patients use this communications channel. Patient Donita Roseboro of Salem, Ore., says, "I think this is great! I use my work email all day, and having a reminder helps me a great deal! Thanks."

Dr. Donna Panucci of South Charleston, W.Va., has received email from more than 75 of her patients since she provided answers for them online. Her patients echo the same themes — they want information access and they want email reminders. One wrote, "I wish all doctors' offices would do this; then I wouldn't have so many missed appointments. It's hard to get four kids to doctor's appointments at different times on different days. Thanks for your help." Another said, "I like being able to access my account and see if insurance has paid on our bill."

A hygienist reported, "It has made it simple to check appointment times. As a hygienist at an office that sends patients to Dr. Panucci, I like being able to tell them about her Web site and all of its great features." If you check out www.panuccismiles. com, you'll find a creative and inviting Web site. Dr. Panucci's patients tell prospective patients about her interactive Web site. It defines the practice as a leader.

The ASP also turbocharges practice outreach and marketing. The automatic emails that go out to Dr. Panucci's patients are customized with messages about activities and events, community involvement, and other practice news. One message promoted the practice's Good Grade Contest — "Have you been receiving A's and B's on your report card? Here's your chance to win a Panucci Prize." The Ortho Sesame system allows the doctor to weave her in-office, practice-promotion activities together with online outreach.

Kim Neville, Dr. Panucci's office manager, sees the benefits in profitability. "It's a wise investment," she says.

Other practice managers see tangible results in eliminated no-shows, as well as a reduction in routine phone calls. "Ever since we started using Ortho Sesame, patients who would normally miss appointments now show up on time!" says Maggie Roussel in the office of Drs. Ed Brown, Jr. and Ed Brown, Sr., in Mandeville, La. Tracy Martin, office manager for Dr. Craig Williams in Decatur, Ga., added, "The more patients we have who signed up for our email reminder service, the fewer phone calls we have to handle every day!" These front-line managers are grateful for relief from the daily grind of routine phone calls.

Martin also appreciates the fact that she doesn't have to manually data-enter email addresses for each patient. Early-on, Pt Interactive figured out the need for an effective way to collect email addresses. Few dentists have their patients' email addresses due to the difficulties in maintaining such a database. Ortho Sesame and Dental Sesame gather these addresses directly from patients. When patients change their email addresses — a common occurrence — they log on and modify their addresses online without bothering the office staff.

Dentists increasingly realize that the Internet can bring tremendous benefits to their practices. They're getting the message that patients expect easier access to information. For the working mother who has to take both kids to get their braces adjusted every month, the choice of doctors may now come down to which orthodontist respects her busy schedule. Online patient-communications pioneers like Dr. Snow, Dr. Panucci, and Dr. Williams saw the future coming — and they're already reaping the benefits.

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Frith Maier co-founded Pt Interactive, a pioneering company of online patient-communications systems. With a background in software and international business, she saw the need for database Web integration in her husband's orthodontic practice. Since 1999, Maier has been instrumental in making it easy for dentists to put the Internet to work for their practices. Maier can be reached at (877) 633-5193 ext. 11, or visit her Web site at www.ptinteractive.com.

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