By Paul Crane, DMD
Since 2008, 75% of dental practices have experienced a decline in their production and revenues. Blame it largely on the recession, but also on the failure of many dentists to recognize and seize the opportunities for growth. One area that represents a significant growth opportunity is the dental hygiene unit. Based on calculations formulated by CPAs serving the dental profession, the hygiene department typically generates 25% of a practice's total revenue. When calculating the revenues that should be derived, the dental CPA's formula is approximately three times the salaries of the practice's dental hygienists. That formula notwithstanding, every dental practice can achieve higher hygiene revenues by addressing the challenges and then adopting best practices.
Challenges hindering hygiene unit growth
Probably the biggest hurdle most practices must overcome is patients unwilling or unable to comply with the prescribed treatment. Some patients simply reject the proposed treatment plan. Others procrastinate. Still others have concerns about the plan or the associated costs. For those who do agree to a treatment plan, there are many who do not keep their appointments. To mitigate all of these obstacles, dental hygienists must be empowered to serve as critical change agents.
Where dentists typically have tight schedules, dental hygienists have a much better opportunity to engage, educate, and motivate patients to follow good oral hygiene practices and prescribed treatment plans. Hygienists typically see each patient for between 35 and 60 minutes. They get to know the patients very well and are often perceived as more accessible. Hygienists are in an excellent position to be the practice's primary educator and hygiene ambassador, building greater patient trust and loyalty. They can:
- Help patients better understand the connection between their treatment plans and overall health
- Educate patients regarding different oral hygiene treatments and interdental cleaning tools
- Encourage patients to keep their regular hygiene appointments
- Build a vibrant continuing-care hygiene unit and drive related revenues
To fulfill this role, dentists must view hygienists as vital team members, not just in their patients' preventive care, but also the practice's growth and profitability.
Proactive patient education
Dentists and hygienists must be proactive in educating patients on everything from how their lifestyle affects their oral health to the best oral hygiene products to use. For example, far too many dental patients have no or limited knowledge of interdental brushes and their benefits. This is also true to a lesser extent of dental floss and other methods of interdental cleaning such as oral irrigation. As a result, many Americans are not practicing good oral hygiene. Studies have found that only 10% to 20% of Americans floss daily, so it stands to reason not only should they be better educated on flossing, but also understand the other options for interdental cleaning.
Think outside the office
Dentists and hygienists need to encourage their patients to practice good oral hygiene between their scheduled appointments. This requires that hygienists get to know each patient, what his or her oral hygiene habits are, offer recommendations regarding tools to use, foods to avoid, more frequent cleanings, and continually benchmark each patient's progress. Patients should receive clear home-care oral hygiene plans to follow. For patients who are not as compliant as they should be, having sample products on hand and demonstrating their use can encourage adherence. To ensure that ample products are available for patient education and demonstration, dental hygienists should be placed in charge of purchasing these products.
Many practices experience up to 20% of their patients being overdue for their hygiene appointments. Every unscheduled or cancelled hygiene appointment represents immediate and future revenue losses. To control this, always schedule the next appointment during a patient's visit. Frequent patient communications by phone, email, or postcard can eliminate many unnecessary cancellations. Dental hygienists should be tasked with overseeing these patient communications. To discourage patients who routinely cancel appointments, reschedule their next available appointment further out, increasing the weeks with each cancellation and then, as possible, giving them an earlier date based on new openings.
A dental practice's hygiene unit can deliver huge dividends to the practice. With a conscious effort to recognize it as a valuable profit center and by adopting best practices, the hygiene unit will drive higher revenues, patient retention, referrals, and value for the practice itself -- all important things for dental practices considering a transition.
Paul Crane, DMD, is a periodontist in East Meadow, N.Y., and founder of the Interdental Brush Buyer's Club. He is a member of the American Academy of Periodontics. You may contact him by email at [email protected].
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