Budgeting for dentistry: Five tips to help patients afford the treatment they need

March 1, 2011
It's tax time, and many of us have been thinking about our budgets for the past year. Where did all the money go?

by Naomi Cooper with Dan Marut, DMD

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: case presentation, treatment planning, fees, Quality Dental Plan, dental saving programs, patient financing, Naomi Cooper, Dr. Dan Marut.

It's tax time, and many of us have been thinking about our budgets for the past year. Where did all the money go? What did I spend it on? Why don't I have anything left in my savings account?

Your patients are no different. They're asking themselves the exact same questions. So is it really any surprise that they never seem to have enough money for dentistry? They don't have the means to buy many of the things they want for themselves and their families, so why would your patients have budgeted for dental treatment, particularly when so many patients still view routine checkups as unnecessary?

The good news is that this isn't irreparable. In fact, there are many things we can do to help patients afford the cost of their treatment – whether it's a simple prophylaxis or a full-mouth reconstruction. Here are a few tips to help patients realize that dentistry is an affordable expense that can be absorbed without breaking their bank or yours.

#1 - Offer outside patient financing

Let's face it; financing is often necessary in life, especially when people are hit with unanticipated expenses, and with dental treatment, it's almost always unanticipated. It's true that most adult patients have credit cards, and if you accept them, it's easy to view that as the same thing as outside financing … but it's not. Not even close, actually. You wouldn't buy a car on a credit card, would you? When you consider that reconstructive and cosmetic dentistry can often leave patients with a bill that stretches well into the thousands, expecting them to charge their treatment is unreasonable.

Patient financing through CareCredit, Chase, Citibank, and other organizations often provides patients with a suspended or reduced interest rate if they can pay it off within a certain amount of time.

That's a powerful incentive. Even if the financing plan you offer does not provide this, keep in mind that there are patients who do not have a credit card or enough available credit on their card to use it for something like a reconstruction.

Simply having a financing plan available to them will be a big help and demonstrates that you understand the strain a big purchase can make and are willing to work with them.

#2 - ALWAYS discuss fees in advance

When it comes to fees, always inform before you perform. It's a good rule of thumb and an integral part of building a long-lasting relationship with your patients.

I realize that this may sound like common sense, and perhaps you feel like you're already doing it, but the question is really how well it's being done. Discussing fees isn't something that should be done as you or your hygienist is scaling their teeth. Sit them down somewhere other than the dental chair and clearly discuss the cost of your recommended treatment.

#3 - Present multiple treatment options

People like having options. They allow us to feel like we're in control. When we are asked to spend money, options help reassure us that we're being presented with all of the information available so that we can make an informed decision rather than having a decision made for us.

When discussing your treatment recommendations, present a few options, from the most affordable to the most ideal. How you present the options is important as well. First, always present the diagnosis (e.g., large cavity). Second, let the patient know what will happen if it's left untreated (e.g., abscess, tooth loss, etc). Finally, present the options for treatment by saying, "If it were me or my family member, I would do option X because of Y." Presenting treatment this way allows the patient to think about the problem and its consequences before the cost.

Finally, avoid judging, and just as important, avoid prejudging. It's impossible to tell what patients can or cannot afford based on how they look and act. Present all options to all patients.

#4 - Always consider the patient's readiness

Most patients are not ready to hear about how poor their oral health is, let alone how much restoring their smile is going to cost. They need to be prepared for such a major decision, and that takes gradually gaining their trust and loyalty as you work to educate them. By letting patients know that while their mouths need considerable work, you are willing to wait until they are ready, you become a true partner in helping create a vision for their optimal oral health. Paul Homoly reminds us of this in his memorable twist on an old Chinese proverb. "When the patient is ready, the dentist will appear." Your patients may not be ready for those comprehensive treatment plans now, but if you continue to take care of them and reinforce those long-term plans, you allow them to come to the decision on their own terms and as their own life circumstances (and budgets) allow.

#5 - Offer in-house membership programs

This one's a relatively new concept to dentistry, but one whose time has come. An increasing number of dental practices are providing their patients with discounted care when they purchase in-house membership plans.

The plans are affordably priced and generally cover preventative treatment while providing a discount on other treatment. It's an approach pioneered by Quality Dental Plan (QDP) (www.QDPdentist.com), and it works remarkably well because it taps into proven buyer behavior – namely, that consumers tend to buy more at membership stores that charge a membership fee because they want to get their money's worth. Yet this system also provides a clear benefit to patients since they're getting their care at a discounted rate while increasing your treatment acceptance rate.

Dental savings programs work extremely well because they create perceived value for your patients as they bundle services into an attractive price, providing peace of mind. Today's consumers have become accustomed to these value oriented membership programs from retailers like Costco, and to the value of bundling services from their cable/phone companies.

These same consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional dental insurance to enable their families to afford the care they know they need. Dental savings programs like QDP fill this much needed niche.

It seems as if your patients don't have money to spend in this economy. But remember that as the economy begins to rebound, these same people are going on vacations, patronizing restaurants, and buying new cars, iPads, and Kindles. As dental professionals, our role lies not in apologizing for our fees or making excuses for our patients, but in getting them to make dentistry a priority and to enable them to afford the quality of care that will allow them to achieve optimum oral health.

Naomi Cooper is a dental marketing and social media expert and president of Minoa Marketing. In her 10 years in the dental industry, Cooper has written for a number of dental trade publications and lectures on a variety of practice management and marketing topics at meetings across the country. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

Dan Marut, DMD, founded Quality Dental Plan to connect dentists looking to make a difference in their communities with new patients, while giving people without dental insurance a compelling reason to go to the dentist. He is also the founder of NewDocs.com, a practicing dentist, a sought-after lecturer, and a published author. Dr. Marut is committed to giving back to his community and the world through his profession, and founded his practice and both of his companies with that vision in mind. For more information about Quality Dental Plan, visit www.completedentalplan.com. Dr. Marut can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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