Stop and consider patient satisfaction

Dec. 1, 1996
Satisfied patients are the foundation of your professional success. They accept more service, visit you more frequently, refer other patients to you and reduce your marketing costs. Marketing experts offer many excellent ways to increase patient satisfaction. Some suggestions require monetary investment on your part. Here, though, are seven, no-cost ways to increase patient satisfaction with your services.

Implementing these seven unassuming steps ensures a contented experience.

Susan Keane Baker

Satisfied patients are the foundation of your professional success. They accept more service, visit you more frequently, refer other patients to you and reduce your marketing costs. Marketing experts offer many excellent ways to increase patient satisfaction. Some suggestions require monetary investment on your part. Here, though, are seven, no-cost ways to increase patient satisfaction with your services.

1. Find out what your patient wants first-Called a catalogue company lately? At most catalogue companies, the first thing the order-taker wants to know is the customer ID number from the back of the catalogue. Then you are asked for the source code, your name, address and daytime telephone number. (Why they don`t have this when you give the customer ID number is beyond me.) Then you are asked for your credit card number and whether the order is going to be shipped to your address. Then, and only then, does the catalogue company care about why you called in the first place-to order something. If the item is not in stock, you`re left feeling frustrated and, perhaps, slightly abused.

Contrast this experience to what happens when you telephone L.L. Bean. "Thank you for calling L.L. Bean. This is Priscilla. May I help you?" "I`d like to place an order for a flannel shirt and jeans, Priscilla." "Thank you, what is the first item number?"

Find out what your patients want first. Your patient may need an onlay on tooth #30 and a resin restoration on tooth #25, but if what she wants is bonding to repair a chip on #10, give it to her! She`ll be more accepting of the need for other treatment, once her immediate needs are satisfied.

2. Greet your patients by name-You`ve heard this one before, but are you doing it? Everyone in the practice should review the appointment list at the start of the day and make the effort to greet people by name. The first moments of each visit are critical to your patient. Think about the last time you interviewed applicants for a position with your dental team. Did you make up your mind about most of them within 60 seconds of your meeting? Most patients decide on how satisfied they will be with the dental visit, based on what they see, hear, smell and experience in their first minute in the office.

When you call Pizza Hut for a pizza, they know where you live, how you like your pizza and that your son plays football. A focus-group participant said recently, "Why is it that Pizza Hut knows everything about me and my dentist`s receptionist doesn`t know my name?"

Most people want four things: to look good, be right, be respected and have a sense of belonging. Using the patient`s name when you greet him says, "You`ve made the right choice coming in today, because we`re happy you`re part of this practice." Remember the television sitcom, "Cheers?" Whenever the character, Norm, came into the bar, everyone yelled out "Norm!" The theme song included the words "...where everybody knows your name." Every one of your staff members should greet every patient by name, every day. No exceptions!

3. Give patients a choice whenever possible-Choice is the most cherished American value. We choose our elected officials and just about everything else. Giving choice helps patients feel that they are getting just what they want. If you visited a restaurant and ordered eggs, you would expect the server to ask you how you like your eggs cooked. If, instead, you were brought eggs the way the chef likes to cook them, would you return?

Choice can mean choosing which examining room the patient will be seen in. (Think this doesn`t matter to patients? Think again! Try it with your next 10 patients and watch to see how many of them do have a preference!) Choice also can be which color toothbrush to take home. It can be prioritizing treatments in the treatment-planning process.

4. Use "for you" at least once in every conversation-This strategy is an easy habit to develop, after a bit of practice. "I`ll be happy to schedule the next visit for you." "I think we should treat this quadrant for you first." The use of "for you" subtly, but effectively, reminds the patient that she is your focus and priority.

5. Put patients at ease-Before beginning a procedure, ask if there is anything you can do to make the patient more comfortable. Most requests can be accommodated in 30 seconds, and your patient will be more at ease, knowing that his or her comfort is important to you. Appropriate touch is another subtle way of caring for an established patient. If your assistant holds a patient`s hand or you pat his arm during a difficult or uncomfortable pro-cedure, you convey empathy. Patients like dental teams that recognize that dental care often is inconvenient and sometimes quite painful.

6. Don`t say what`s on your mind-You tend to talk about what you are thinking about, but sometimes talking about what`s on your mind gives the patient the wrong impression. There`s an old story about a doctor sitting with his patient the night before surgery. To ease her fears, he begins telling her about the costs of his daughter`s wedding and his son`s college tuition. As he is leaving, he asks, "Do you have any questions?" "Just one," she replies. "Am I paying for college or the wedding?"

I met a 40-something man recently, who had a full set of braces. I asked him what prompted him to have orthodontia. "Actually, my children got braces first," he explained. "Then, my wife asked for them for her 40th birthday. Then, I decided to get them, but I had to switch to my wife`s dentist to get them." "Why was that?" I asked. "Well, I liked my dentist, but he spent more time complaining about managed care and not being able to make enough money than he did talking about me. When I asked him about braces, he laughed and went on to something else. My wife had been urging me to try her dentist, so I did. The funny thing is that my first dentist could have made a lot of money from me, if he had just talked to me about what I wanted." Sometimes, your attitude toward your problem is causing more trouble for you than the problem itself.

Pay attention to what it is you`re discussing with patients while they`re in the chair. Avoid discussion of managed care, high overhead and how things aren`t what they used to be. Don`t talk about your upcoming vacation, if it is beyond the reach of your patient. You could ask about your patient`s vacation plans, though, and comment on that area, if you know something about it. One dentist plays tapes of radio shows about cooking and restaurants. Food is a neutral subject that is of interest to most people.

Stories also are very entertaining. Pick up a few books of stories at the library. Find stories you like and then have a "story of the week." Sure, you`ll be telling the same story to a lot of patients. But this gives you great practice and, by the end of the week, you`ll be spinning the tale like a pro. Some suggested stories for you to read: The Toymbee Convector by Ray Bradbury or any O. Henry story, for the unexpected endings. Or, look for the Best Short Stories of 1995-type editions by different authors.

You also can tell your own stories. A wonderful book to help you organize stories is The Sir Winston Method by James Hume. It recently went out of print, but still can be found in some bookstores and many libraries. James Hume, a former White House speechwriter, explains how Winston Churchill organized his speeches and became one of history`s most powerful orators.

7. Make the ending count-Your final impression will be a lasting one. Leave your visit slowly. If you dash out of the room, you may create a final impression that you were rushed and, perhaps, the patient didn`t receive as much time or care as he or she needed. After paying her bill and booking the next appointment, the patient should hear "Mrs. Jones, thanks for coming in today. I`m looking forward to seeing you again next time." The send-off should be done with as much cheerfulness and enthusiasm as you or your staff person can muster. You want the patient to leave feeling cared for and that her decision to receive treatment from you is a wise one.

Finally, you earn money, not for your knowledge, but for what you do with your knowledge. It`s not what you know, but what you do with what you know that counts. So, obtain a return on the investment of your time you made to read this article by implementing some of these subtle tips in your practice. Your patients will be happier and so will you. And, being cared for by a dentist who loves what he or she is doing may be the greatest patient-satisfier of all.

The author, who resides in New Canaan, CT, writes and speaks on topics relating to patient satisfaction and risk management. She can be reached at (203)-966-4880.

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