Patient reminder communciations: An online approach

Most front desk personnel dread the reminder and recall telephone calls. Hours of productive time and thousands of dollars are lost making these calls...

Aug 1st, 2007

by Martin Jablow, DMD

Most front desk personnel dread the reminder and recall telephone calls. Hours of productive time and thousands of dollars are lost making these calls to remind adults that they have scheduled an appointment. Finding an improved, more automated approach to reminders could free up staff time better spent serving the patients - while saving the practice money.

Companies such as Demandforce (www.demandforce.com),UAppoint (www.uappoint.com), Smile Reminder (www.smilereminder.com), and Lighthouse (www.light housePMG.com) provide online communication systems. These online systems offer new and useful tools to enhance patient communications and relationships. They integrate seamlessly with your practice management software and provide a vital link between dentists and their patients. This connection will keep the line of communications open, helping to attract new patients, retain existing patients, reactivate lost patients, and reduce no-show appointments.

Most practices do not maximize the use of their practice management software.

You can better use your existing office management program by integrating online communications. All the online communications companies integrate with the most popular practice management software. All the office staff has to do is enter the e-mail address into the e-mail field in the practice management software. The software then reads the appointment dates and automatically sends the appropriate communications to the patient. Smile Reminder, Lighthouse, and Demandforce can also use cellular telephone text messaging to contact patients, making the communication location independent. Remember to ask the patients’ permission to send e-mails or text messages as reminders; invite patients to opt into this service if they like, rather than forcing them to opt out if they would prefer the phone call. If you want to jump-start the e-mail address process, there are companies that retrieve e-mail addresses for you. You could also put a fish bowl in the waiting room for people to fill out small forms with their e-mail addresses and, at the end of the month, pull a name for a prize, such as two movie tickets - some enticement for patients to enter into the online reminder system.

Most offices provide hygiene reminder cards as a courtesy to their patients, a very time-consuming practice for the staff member who must run the reports, label the postcards, and lick the stamps. Alternatively, online systems automatically send online continuing-care reminders to patients who are past due.

The practice has the option of adding an incentive to encourage patients to schedule their next visit sooner rather than later. Demandforce routinely tracks which patients received reminders, when they received them, whether the patients visited, and the amount of production realized from the system.

Online reminders reduce no-show appointments.

Most missed appointments result from mere forgetfulness, but online systems can send an e-mail to patients two weeks prior to their appointment, one week prior, and one or two days prior to their appointment. Patients can confirm the appointment with a click of the mouse. This procedure reduces the need for follow-up telephone calls made by staff members. According to Demandforce, some practices have reported up to a 35 percent decrease in the need for confirmation telephone calls. Consider how much staff time the practice saves using online communications. People may miss a phone call or family members may neglect to relay a voice mail message, but e-mails are rarely missed.

Customer service is no longer reserved for business hours.

Patients can shop, bank, and arrange travel online, so why can’t they request dental appointments online? In the patient online communication system, they can, and all communications arranging the appointment can be executed at times convenient to all parties. Demandforce statistics show that 65 percent of patients requesting an online appointment do so after normal business hours. Online communications allow a patient to place a request for an appointment at 2 a.m. and allow the office to retrieve the e-mail when the office opens the next morning. The request can be reviewed and either accepted or rejected. A response e-mail can confirm an acceptable time, and a phone call or e-mail can reject an unacceptable one and suggest alternative dates and times.

E-mails and text messages are efficient, but a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found, surprisingly, that 49 percent of Americans have little or no usage of the Internet or cell phones. Further, Lighthouse found that new clients have rarely gathered e-mail addresses for their patients, since there was no reason to do so prior to using the service. On average, an office just starting to use online communications has e-mail addresses for fewer than 30 percent of its patients. This means that 50 to 70 percent of your patients will, for some time, still need to be contacted by traditional means - postcards and phone calls. Both Lighthouse and UAppoint offer automated printing and mailing of postcards so you can still get the benefits of automation even for those patients who can’t be contacted electronically. Lighthouse also offers a free practice Web site with its service. That includes a public Web site for your patients, and an “Intranet” for staff that includes features such as on-screen call lists that allow staff to contact those patients who didn’t respond to the electronic methods.

UAppoint goes a step further in its appointment scheduling system, actually reading the open hygiene appointments from the practice management software and showing patients’ available appointment times, allowing the patient to request an open appointment. If it is acceptable to the dental office, a single click confirms the appointment. This style of scheduling is totally secure and in compliance with HIPAA regulations, and since the dental office decides which time slots are available and whether an appointment request is acceptable, the practice retains complete control over its schedule.

Automatic patient reactivation and more

My staff dislikes the task of purging the charts, looking back through the records, and trying to reactivate patients. Retaining existing patients is much less expensive than attracting new ones - a tenth of the cost by some estimates! Using online communications, the task of sending reminders to patients who have been “AWOL” for 12 or 18 months becomes simple and inexpensive - just a friendly e-mail or automated postcard. Instead of waiting for down time to go through the charts, the purging can be effected on an ongoing basis without staff intervention. With Demandforce, practices can elect to include an incentive to motivate patients to schedule appointments in a timely manner by, for example, offering a discount on bleaching. Lost patients are lost revenue, and online communications help prevent patients from slipping through the cracks.

In addition, regular communication with patients increases satisfaction, and satisfied patients will readily refer friends and family if asked. Demandforce makes it easy to ask for referrals - something most doctors dislike doing - and automatically tracks the referrer, who is referred, and the revenue generated by that referral. The online system can even generate a thank you note to the referring patient. The patient just sends a link from the online communication Web site to his or her friends and family, thus generating the referral without the doctor’s or staff’s intervention, as if they were handing out your business card online.

Wondering how your office is doing?

Ask the patients! Both Demandforce and Smile Reminder can send e-mail thank you notes after each visit and request the patient fill out an online survey. Approximately 20 percent of patients complete the survey, and the results are instantly conveyed to the office and alert the practice to low scores. This immediate feedback enables the office to quickly address any problems, potentially salvaging a less-than-ideal patient experience. Patients who have issues resolved promptly develop greater loyalty and are even more likely to refer others than those who experience initial satisfaction. Demandforce takes an extra step in allowing a practice to compare its patient satisfaction for each question against the national average, providing its users with an absolute score as well as a relative score against other practices.

How effective are online patient communications overall?

Demandforce and Lighthouse lets you track the responses. Demandforce compares responses to other offices nationwide. Generating reports is not even necessary - just check the system numbers to see the statistics in real time. Track the patient communications - whether they read the e-mail and whether they responded. See if the patient had a good experience in your office. These communication systems are your online consultants available to you 24/7/365!

Of course, any program instituted by a practice must be tracked and continually measured to ensure that it persists in being a worthwhile investment of both time and money. It is equally important to track the online reminder system to verify that it is generating positive return on investment numbers, and with Demandforce your ROI is part of its guarantee: if you do not meet monthly numbers, the next month is free. Lighthouse has no contract, so if you ever feel the service is not living up to your expectations, you can simply cancel it.

Your practice management system contains a wealth of valuable data. An online communication system helps you extract this information and facilitates a higher quality and higher technology experience for your patients.

Dr. Martin Jablow practices general dentistry in Woodbridge, N.J. He lectures on the use of technology to enhance dentistry. Reach him by e-mail at marty@dentaltechnologysolutions.com or by phone at (848) 459-4997. His Web site address is www.dentaltechnology solutions.com.

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