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Attracting new patients

Feb. 1, 2006
Have you ever received a coupon in the mail and used it at a new dry cleaner, restaurant, chiropractor, or optometrist?
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Have you ever received a coupon in the mail and used it at a new dry cleaner, restaurant, chiropractor, or optometrist? Did you end up staying and developing a long-term professional, mutually beneficial relationship? If so, great! Or, did you look in next month’s coupon packet for an opportunity to try someone else new to you?

In dentistry, as in other businesses and professions, we aren’t always looking for bodies to come in the door and spend a few dollars with us. We would rather become acquainted with caring people who value health and, ultimately, their relationship with us.

Some practices that are busy with overflowing schedules also need new patients - not just any new patient, but the right kind of patient. All patients are not created equal. Some are more valuable than others. They may more readily accept treatment, but they also are more valuable because we like them and have congruent values.

I would like to share with you 2.5 (yes, two and one-half!) things you can do to attract more new patients. Not just warm bodies in the chair that we can count, but the right new patients that we can build a successful career and practice around. I am talking here about the most beneficial strategies for internal marketing that a dentist (young or old) can use to grow the practice of his or her dreams.

Strategy 1: Be different

This first strategy can produce rapid results. To stand out in the Yellow Pages, you would need a bigger ad or more colors. To impact your local metro style magazine, you might have to buy two pages instead of the one that everyone else has. Your coupon would have to offer a greater discount or a free service and the direct mail piece would have to be so creatively different that someone would actually open it. All of these strategies are expensive and unpredictable in terms of both response and selectivity. These differentiations are more about making your ad different, not you! Instead, select one, two, or three things (at the most) to make your practice different. For example:

Always run on time! People’s lives are busy. Their time is more valuable than ever. Some of your clients make more money than you do and sit calculating the cost of waiting for their appointment. By the way, how do you feel when it happens to you? This does not mean hurrying patients through your office. It does mean not overscheduling. It means planning appropriate time for each patient.

New patients should have lots of time set aside for conversations with you and they should receive a comprehensive oral health evaluation. I recommend two hours for the first visit. Patients should be “prepared” when scheduling their appointments for how long their time with you could run, so they can plan their day appropriately.

Make exquisite provisional restorations, not blobs of acrylic with open contacts, poor margins, or no occlusion. Restorative patients will tell their friends about their experience. Let’s make it awesome! The dental school myth about making your temps so nice they won’t return for the real crown is only a myth. While attending a continuing-eduction course years ago, I developed this skill and it has paid huge dividends.

Pay attention to occlusal disease. My patients have often referred their friends and neighbors because they came to understand that how we treated their teeth was different and more comprehensive than what they had received at their previous dental office. Understanding the role of occlusal disease and its impact on restorative dentistry is very differentiating and rewarding. I was taught the mantras of “ethical comprehensive care” and “treating others as if they were family.” These principles have always kept me on a focused path. Developing excellence in splint therapy and equilibration have made my dentistry more predictable, appreciated, and rewarding - both financially and spiritually.

Strategy 2: Create a great new-patient experience

This strategy also can produce rapid results. The Institute I attended has practice management, occlusion, finance, behavioral skills, and more in it, it is focused primarily on the new-patient examination experience. More than just an “exam,” this is an experience, wrapped around the clinical data you are gathering to bring much more to the event. Relationships begin to form. Dialogue, understanding, and often an early trust emerge from an unrushed, preclinical interview and examination. I explain to patients that we hope to accomplish three things during this first visit:

1) I want to go over their medical and dental history to learn about them and understand them better.

2) I want to take appropriate photographs, X-rays, and impressions. I want to do what will probably be the most complete and thorough examination they have ever had!

3) I want to open the door for them to be in control of their oral health in a rather behaviorally unique way.

Although I will certainly get to know them better as we discuss their medical and dental history, they will also get a chance to interview me. That’s right - interview, quiz, challenge, or learn about me. I tell them this, because if they decide to hire me and my staff as their dental health-care advocates, wouldn’t it make sense if we were on the same page philosophically? It would be frustrating if I were out in left field while they were in right.

I take as much time as we need preclinically before I look in my new client’s mouth. Routinely, we schedule two hours for the visit. Sometimes we never end up in a dental chair because so much comes up that is important to talk about. In these cases, the comprehensive clinical exam is scheduled for a subsequent visit. Occasionally, we conclude the visit in less time than allotted, and I am free to do some lab work or make a call.

Getting to know your patient is a cornerstone of Dr. L.D. Pankey’s original philosophy. I am reminded of him telling us that he never saw a tooth walk into his office. Teeth always have a person attached. Patients are starving to be heard! No one listens to them on a regular basis. I do not think that this is limited to dentistry, but is pandemic in our society today. When you do start the clinical exam, involve the patient. Ask your clients what they think, what they observe, and how they feel about things you are observing. Be complete and thorough.

When we learned auscultation, muscle palpation, occlusal analysis, periodontal probing, oral cancer screening, and the rest of the protocol in dental school, they never gave us permission to shortcut that by just checking for caries when we graduated. Yet, that is what I drifted toward before beginning my advanced post- doctoral training.

Strategy 2.5: Just ask for referrals

Are you wondering why I consider this to be a half step instead of a third whole strategy? This is so easy to do, really. It doesn’t take a lot of concerted change and focus on your part. And, it will have a long-term positive impact. Start this healthy habit now!

If you are entering into real relationships with patients and not just fixing their teeth, they will be flattered if you ask for their help in building your practice. Trust me on this; I’ve tested it. If they pay you a compliment after you have completed a procedure, or if you fish for one by asking how things went and they respond favorably, you have been invited. Now, just ask.

For example, say: “Thanks, Mr. Goodpatient, I rather enjoyed it, too. You are great to work with, and I have an easy time doing my best work with patients like you. Say, could you help me with something?” (Patients will always respond with a “yes” to this because they want to help ... unless they have a pickup truck and you are planning to move over the weekend!) “I am not trying to have the biggest practice around here, but I do have room for a few of the right patients. If you know of someone who needs what we do - or think of someone down the road - feel free to give him or her one of our business cards. I can’t have everyone sending patients; we would be too busy. But, any friend of yours would be welcome here.”

It is amazing how insecure some dentists can be. Many of us are afraid of how patients will view us. If you use the above script, they actually will be flattered that you asked them. Tests have shown this is an extremely successful way of attracting the right patients. Like refers like, so just try asking the right ones that you already have. They will send more! If, however, one of your least favorite patients offers to send their friends to you, it is OK to tell them that you wish you had room for new patients, but you are getting so busy lately that you can’t take them. “But thanks ever so much for thinking of us.”

If you read this article and just think it will work ... it won’t. You have to act. Differentiate yourself, ask for referrals, and enjoy the luxury of the compound interest that these 2.5 strategies bring to your practice. You just might have more fun and find a better balance for yourself, as well.

Mark T. Murphy, DDS, FAGD, is the director of marketing and professional relations for the nonprofit Pankey Institute. He practices part time in Rochester Hills, Mich., and can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].

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