Top 10 reasons to cultivate the lost art of follow-up

Jan. 1, 2011
Follow-up is vital to exceptional, individualized patient care. Providing effective follow-up to patients requires consistency and sensitivity ...

by Terry Goss

For more on this topic, go to www.dentaleconomics.com and search using the following key words: follow-up, valued, gratitude, reactivation, attention, feedback, habits, Terry Goss.

Follow-up is vital to exceptional, individualized patient care. Providing effective follow-up to patients requires consistency and sensitivity to their needs and circumstances. When contact falters, ineffectual attempts at follow-up can result in missed opportunities, or even the loss of a patient.

Being poached is fine for eggs but not for the dental community of patients. If we don’t make them feel valued, someone else may. In the months between one office visit and the next, patients may experience changes in insurance coverage, an unexpected job lay-off, or the seductive promises made by low-priced "monthly special" coupons that arrive in their mailboxes.

The exquisite dental care patients receive is not enough to bullet-proof them against these worries and temptations unless we also provide them with personalized and thoughtful follow-up.

But how? With workdays that already seem stretched to the limit, how can we most efficiently use our time, creative energy, and authentic thoughtfulness to complete the circle of connection with patients? I recommend focusing on the following 10 tips to help best fulfill your essential role as an ally and advocate for patients:

1) Express your gratitude

Personal notes to your patients can deepen relationships, forge active connections, and add value to your interactions. These notes can convey a variety of sentiments – acknowledgements, messages of appreciation, or even "You inspired me" notes. As long as your feelings are positive and sincere, your contact will nearly always come as a pleasant surprise to patients.

2) Make it relevant

The better you know patients, the more likely you are to notice new sources of information that are germane to their interests and concerns. Why not send an e-mail to them that contains a link to a pertinent Web site or YouTube video, or pass along information to them about a book or article that you think is well-suited to their needs?

3) Get personal

Life is full of special occasions. When your patients celebrate a birthday, wedding, graduation, or other milestone, or if they encounter a setback – such as a death in the family or a job loss – a personal note signed by the doctor and team can mean the world to them. Remember that the timeliness of your contact adds to its impact.

4) Go the extra mile

Many practices recognize the value of making postop calls to patients after a significant dental procedure. In addition, when the practice refers a patient to a specialist for a needed procedure, it is equally important to make a personal follow-up call the evening of the specialty procedure. From this call, you can make sure that everything went according to plan, that the patient’s questions about the procedure and necessary after-care are answered, that they are satisfied with the attention received in the specialist’s office, and that they are not experiencing any postop difficulties that require attention. They trusted you to make the needed referral. Now it is time to welcome them back into the practice’s fold, and reassure them that they can rely on you to meet future needs.

5) Find the lost lambs

Reactivation calls are your chance to mount a search party for patients who were "no-shows," who have stalled out in the midst of treatment plans, or who are no longer on your books. A missing patient’s hygienist is often an ideal person to make this call, since this person is most clinically connected to the patient and has the expertise to properly influence action. Make sure your motivation in making such a call is to stay connected with the patient and move the relationship forward, rather than simply attempting to fill the ‘‘holes" in your book. Keeping your purpose pure and constructive, in the long run, will be more effective.

6) Close the back door

A newsletter sent by your practice to patients is a chance to introduce new staff and educate patients about the latest technology or new services your practice offers. Such a newsletter (whether in print or electronic form) can be annual, seasonal, or monthly. It can even be reserved for special topics such as swine flu prevention, perio health, and medical implications of nutritional supplements. By keeping patients updated about the range of choices available in your office, you minimize the likelihood that they will look elsewhere for specialty services – tooth whitening, invisible braces, and other popular treatment choices – that they may not realize you offer. Don’t risk losing customer loyalty or potential revenue by failing to enlighten patients about the latest additions to your office’s repertoire.

7) Consider the source

Feedback is a valuable, often overlooked form of follow-up. Welcome it. In fact, pursue it, especially from your target patients. Use interviews, surveys, feedback "parties" and phone calls ("Is there anything we could have done today to make your experience better?"). It’s also an effective way to prevent dissatisfied patients from feeling ignored and going away mad. If they leave your practice, you lose valued relationships. Utilize the information you glean from feedback, both pro and con, and thank patients for their honest contributions.

8) Put it in writing

Follow up consultations with patients in writing by restating the day’s findings and summarizing the agreed upon actions. When patients can process information at their pace, in an unpressured atmosphere, it often leads to clearer understanding, greater retention of information, and increased enthusiasm about their partnership with you and your team.

9) Support new habits

Half a century ago, Dr. Maxwell Maltz asserted that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. During this crucial three-week window, devise a series of imaginative contacts you can make to help patients maintain positive momentum as they settle into a new course of action that will benefit them for years to come.

10) Raise the roof!

The happiest follow-up efforts are those that celebrate the wonderful outcomes we achieve with patients. Create postoperative photographs, welcome patient testimonials, and share your excitement about these outstanding accomplishments. There is no better way to generate referrals than by sharing your enthusiasm about making a difference in the lives of those you serve.

In the final analysis

Follow-up is not for the faint of heart or those who are easily deterred. Be cheerfully persistent in the face of failed follow-up attempts. Don’t take it personally. Patients are not rejecting you; they simply are failing to respond to your invitation or suggestion. Don’t fall into a defeatist mindset.

Remember that we see only a small corner of a patient’s world. It may simply be that the time is not yet right. Be willing to reach out again – and again.

Asking a patient about follow-up, in advance, increases the professionalism of your contact. For example, if a patient is planning to tackle a persistent perio problem, you might ask, "With your permission, may I check in with you in a month to see how this is going?"

It’s hard to gauge how often to follow up with patients if you do not know what additional contacts they may be receiving from other office staff. To maintain your balance between the twin dangers of over-contact and neglect, document all follow-up contacts in a patient’s file.

Keep in mind, as well, that the most effective follow-ups are made while the details are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Timeliness makes your follow-up more impactful, and helps assure that you and your patient continue to head in the same direction.

Follow-up helps you connect with, encourage, and inspire patients. When they feel heard and respected, they become willing and active partners in their care.

Follow-up is the missing link that enables you to enhance your level of patient service, thereby reaping the greatest reward of all – a roster of happy, healthy, more loyal patients.

Terry Goss, BFA, a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach and Master Practitioner of NLP, is a nationally recognized practice management consultant, speaker, and coach. Goss has worked in dentistry for nearly 30 years. She has extensive training in advanced management and leadership development, behavioral psychology, and the new neuroscience. She is committed to uncovering the unique talents in all people and helping them reach peak performance as individuals and as a team. Her ideas, advanced skills, and creative resources have energized and empowered practices across the country. For more information, visit www.TerryGossAssoc.com.

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