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Importance of strong patient payment programs in dental practices

May 1, 2021
Patients may want your great dentistry, but how will they pay for it? Dental practices have more payment options today than ever before, so it's time to offer them.

To function at the highest levels of productivity, profitability, and sustainable patient flow, dental offices must understand and constantly improve their operations that occur away from the chair.

One of the most important of these functions is securing patient money for treatment. In the old days, there were basically two options: cash and insurance. Cash will always be the best option, but as treatment prices rise and insurance coverage falls, paying for treatment at time of service becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for patients. This may cause them to walk out the door frustrated and leave the office without revenue.

Every dental professional understands the importance of a great treatment plan, but few take the time to develop a strong payment plan system that allows more patients to afford great dentistry. Having one without the other makes little sense in today’s competitive health-care marketplace.

Many offices invest tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, presentation technology, and incredible consult rooms, but invest little or nothing in preparing their teams to help patients pay for their treatment. Many back-office staff, such as office managers and finance coordinators, have little or no training when it comes to closing business or talking money. Back-office folks are usually not hired based on their sales or presentation experience, but more for their skills in running a dental office. This lack of experience and training is often the downfall of great treatment plans.

The goal of every office should be to develop a team of trained professionals who can discuss payment options just as well as the doctor can present those life-changing treatment plans. Why is payment so often an afterthought in many dental organizations?

Here is my motto for the offices I work with around the country: Never let qualified patients leave the office without a payment strategy for their treatment plans. Both treatment and payment must show value and benefit to the patient. The weaker the treatment or payment plan, the less likely the patient will ever return.

Two steps to build a payment program worthy of great treatment plans

Step 1: Develop a strategy that uses all four payment options

There are four payment options in health care: cash, credit card, insurance, and payment plans. Frankly, every office should offer a payment program that incorporates all of these options and offer incentives to patients who use the method most beneficial to the office. Cash is always the best option for the office. Cash discounts should be offered to reward patients who can cover their cost of treatment and save the clinic time and money.

Credit cards are second. Even with the clinic paying the charge card fee, this payment method is great for the office. As with cash, credit cards require little back-office time or effort.

Insurance that pays for the entire treatment plan (or close to it) is the third best option, even though many insurance providers force the office to lower their treatment fees. The office overhead required by insurance is the highest of all four payment options. Many offices are choosing not to accept insurance because of the reduced payment for treatments and the hassle of getting paid.

The new kids on the payment block are patient payment programs. Some payment plans are run by large credit card-based companies and some allow clinics to build their own payment plans, such as Patient Preferred.

The power of having all four payment options in place is to combine them. For example, using a cash/credit card down payment with the balance paid off over time through the payment program is a powerful option for large treatment plans. Patient Preferred offers a “smile layaway” option. This allows qualified patients to start making payments immediately toward a down payment, with the goal of starting treatment once the down payment goal is met. This allows the dental office to cover hard costs up front.

So, how does an office develop a strategy that incorporates all four payment options? First, the doctor and staff must take the time to talk. There are no absolute standards when it comes to collecting money and closing business. Patients are as different as their treatment plans, so the office staff dealing with money should be creative and must understand the needs of the office first and the patient second. This may sound a little crass, but an office that does not understand its costs and profit, or that allows unqualified patients to use the wrong plan, will see these missteps in their bottom lines, and this may lead to the end of the practice.

Some great questions to get doctor and staff started:

How do we price our services while realizing we love cash, but allowing alternatives such as payment plans or insurance? We need to address the time/value of money and how to create more profitable options for our business.
How do we minimize risk if we allow patients to pay us over time, yet continue to increase our case acceptance?
Who are the best people in the office to present the cost of treatment and payment options, and why? How can we get more staff comfortable and successful doing this important function? We need more than one team member in charge if the practice wishes to grow.
Do we track our success in closing new business? If not, why not? Our goal should be to constantly improve at closing new business. How can we do that?

Step 2: Train and continually practice presenting and closing

The best way to improve any skill is to practice. The best way to practice presenting and closing is role-playing. One person is the patient and the other is the treatment coordinator or doctor. Doing this as a group during lunch is a great way to improve technique and build confidence. Common sense always makes “cents.” Have the team put themselves in the shoes of patients as well as the in shoes of the office. What we’re looking for is a win-win.

When it comes to money, I highly recommend formal sales training for those who interface with patients. There are several programs available, and it is money well spent. Feel free to contact me, and I will forward some excellent groups with very good results.

The more you practice, the more you profit. Powerful treatment plans combined with creative payment options make great dentistry affordable and life-changing. Cover both sides of the patient treatment experience (treatment and payment planning), and you will be amazed with the results.

RON RICE is president and founder of Patient Preferred Financial Services. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (630) 302-6248.

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