The patient wisdom slip

Sept. 1, 2000
Using a simple, one-page form when a new patient contacts your office can help you create a great first impression.

Using a simple, one-page form when a new patient contacts your office can help you create a great first impression.

John A. Wilde, DDS

A steady supply of new patients - patients who enthusiastically accept needed care - is essential to the prosperity of most practices. So how does a skilled dental team maximize the probability that potential patients will have an overwhelmingly positive initial impression of the office? How do you ensure that those who call your office will be motivated to make and keep critical first-examination appointments consistently?

That all-important first opinion occurs before the patient calls to schedule an examination. In our rural area, this initial impression is likely to be formed on the basis of the combined comments and recommendations of several neighbors and/or friends.

For one practice, that first impression might be made as a result of a visit to your Web site, by reading your Yellow Pages ad, or from the information on your direct-marketing mailer. Whatever the source of information, something motivated this person to call a specific practice to request a new-patient examination.

Once phone contact has been made with your office, a new level of awareness and a relationship based on personal experience begins to develop. Often, the ultimate decision to make (or keep) a complete examination appointment is based primarily upon this brief introductory conversation with a team member. How can any dentist be certain this crucial impression will always be a dynamically yes, even if the call comes early on a frantic Monday morning?

A simple, one-page form can be used to assure that crucial first phone contact accomplishes five important goals:

1. Creates an indelibly powerful impression that establishes your office as being committed to the patient`s well-being and constructively begins the patient`s journey toward the ultimate goal of ideal oral health.

2.Decreases new-patient examination failures. Initial examinations had, by far, the highest failure rate of any appointed procedure in our office before we started using this form. Now, new patient failures are close to zero.

3. Allocates exam times designed to match identified patient needs. No more feeling rushed when inadequate time exists to deal with complex treatment options. No more wasted 20 minutes when patients present with perfect oral health and you feel the need to fill the empty interval with a discussion about the weather.

4. Builds tremendous staff confidence by creating an easily understood system to guide team members unerringly through the critical first phone contact. Having a precise strategy in place also makes it simple for previously untrained staff members to confidently and thoroughly assimilate this vital behavior.

5. Affords the dentist significant insights into the patient`s oral-health values and beliefs before they ever meet. This knowledge is pivotal to the dentist being able to develop the ideal approach to identifying and deeply engaging the patient`s interests, needs, and desires during the all-important first minutes of contact during the exam.

We call this very important form a "Patient Wisdom Slip." It really does provide all these benefits and more. (I`d like to clearly acknowledge that I obtained the basic structure of this system from some long- forgotten source and modified it to fulfill the needs of our office. I would like to thank the original author for his or her generous contribution to dentistry. By passing it along through this article, I hope to further enhance its usefulness.)

Take a moment to scan our Patient Wisdom Slip before we begin to explore the importance of each item of information on the form.

Date of the call

For me, having the date the call was made on the form is very important. I want to be certain that we see all new patients - especially those with complex problems - within two weeks of the day the patient contacted our office. We preblock two 40-minute exam slots per week for patients whom the form identifies as having pressing dental-health concerns.

The name of the staff member taking the call is recorded on the form so that we can assure continuity of contact with this same person. By doing this, we feel we increase the strength of the relationship throughout the new-patient experience. (Every staff member gives her name when answering any call, because prospective patients prefer talking with a "person," not an "office" ... and certainly not with an automated telephone system!)

We write down the patient`s first and last names phonetically. We know that no sound is as sweet as the sound of the patient`s own name ... unless the name is mispronounced. The phrase "reserved time" is repeated during the discussion of the patient`s appointment. This is one way to enhance the importance and value of the upcoming appointment, thus reducing failed appointments.

We send a note of thanks for the confidence and interest the patient has shown in our office. We also send along a coffee mug embossed with the office logo, phone number, and address to anyone kind enough to refer someone to our practice. (If you want good behavior repeated, you must reward it!) We try to deliver the mug to the patient`s workplace where it will be seen - and perhaps discussed - with fellow employees.

Patient`s dental IQ

The next three questions on the form begin to tell us something about the patient`s dental-intelligence quota and oral-health values. There probably is a significant difference between a patient who last saw a dentist four years ago for an emergency extraction, and one who completed a veneer case before moving to our community. Successful dentists understand that having this kind of knowledge is power!

We`ll assist the patient in completing a cosmetic-evaluation form as part of our comprehensive examination. However, we ask new patients to tell us about their perception of their dental appearance on the form. This will stimulate their thinking about the looks of their smile. We also want to precipitate the process of self-discovery - whether patients are pleased with the appearance of their teeth or not.

The dentist needs to be aware of any acute symptoms, so that he or she can see the patient that day for palliative care if indicated. Discussing possible (and potentially painful) problems also accentuates the importance of patients keeping their scheduled appointments.

Before the scheduled exam, if time permits, we mail out a welcome package to the patient. This package includes our office brochure, in which we welcome the patient to our practice, explain our examination policy and how we deal with insurance, and provide other critical information. Before we began taking medical histories on our computer, we included a health history form in the mailing. We did this to allow patients an opportunity to fill it out at their leisure and to give them ample opportunity to check any medical information about which they were unsure.

Learning what`s important

The statement, "It is very important to our dental team that your first visit with Dr. Wilde be a positive experience," reinforces our concern for his orher well-being ... an underlying part of our core-value system.

Asking the question, "What is important to you in a dentist?" provides us with some insight into the patient`s oral-health values. Awareness of this primary concern is helpful to me in constructing my first comments when I meet with the patient. Such values as "gentle, painless, high-quality care; pleasant;

doesn`t scold" will all be discussed during the course of our complete exam. Being able to address a patient`s central concerns immediately is a great relationship-builder.

By using the Patient Wisdom Slip, experienced staff now possess adequate information to schedule the ideal time required for a new-patient interview. The length of these appointments generally run 10 minutes for children (we don?t use this form for them), 20 minutes for young adults with no identifiable problems, 30 minutes for adults with no visible dental needs, and 40 minutes for adults who have expressed oral-health concerns. However, these time intervals are merely guidelines. All staff members have the authority to adjust them as each individual situation dictates.

Waiting for previous X-rays at the patient?s request can delay complete diagnosis and treatment. It is frustrating to discover two weeks after the examination that the Ocomplete current X-raysO the patient was sure his last dentist had taken consist of four-year-old bite-wings. Requesting that previous X-rays be sent to the new dentist?s office prior to the examination gives the new doctor insight into the patient?s current dental condition. At the same time, requesting that X-rays be sent in advance of the appointment eliminates the annoyance of having to wait for these films to complete the treatment plan.

Concluding the conversation

The team member closes the conversation by again offering to answer any questions the patient may have. This reinforces our values of compassion and concern and helps deepen the office-patient affinity. The scheduler also repeats the patient?s name, further enhancing the burgeoning relationship. A card with the time and date of the appointment will be included in the welcome package that we mail to the patient.

The big day arrives

During our daily morning huddle, I?ll review with the staff all of the information we have available concerning any new patients scheduled for that day. We may discuss other family members who are patients and the existing patient who referred the new patient ... and who may share similar values. Our front- desk staff may offer some financial insight into the new patient?s situation. Through this process, all team members are fully informed and prepared before our new patient arrives.

As soon as the patient enters our office, he or she is warmly greeted by name (correctly pronounced) by the staff member who completed the Wisdom Slip. This team member goes out to the reception area to greet the patient, shakes hands, escorts the patient to a computer, and assists in completing a medical history. While the history is being printed, the patient is given a brief tour of the facility, then escorted into my private office for a blood-pressure test. The team member then completes a cosmetic questionnaire through an interview with the patient. She asks the questions and records the answers, while the patient studies his or her smile in an ornate hand mirror that we provide.

When all of this is completed, my fellow team member summons me to my private office and introduces me to our guest. I smile, greet the patient by name, and shake hands warmly. At this point, my primary goal is to maintain the wonderful impression already established by my excellent staff. Consistently greeting new patients who have already formed distinctly positive opinions about your practice and your team is wisdom indeed!

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