Dealing with overdue patients

Last month's feature article on patient retention struck a cord and prompted many emails and phone calls asking for more help.

Annette Ashley Linder, BS, RDH

Last month's feature article on patient retention struck a cord and prompted many emails and phone calls asking for more help. Tracking patient retention and reactivating the patient who is no longer receiving care is crucial to practice stability and growth. The typical dental practice operates at a patient retention rate between 50 and 65 percent.

It is all about communication. The way in which we communicate with our patients — and with each other — has a tremendous impact on patient perceptions, stress levels, and the success of the practice. In fact, it often is the determining factor — the tipping point — that takes the practice over the top.

With that in mind, here are several communication strategies for contacting the overdue, out-of-care patient.

Sample telephone dialogues

Scheduling Coordinator: "Mr. Smith, Dr. Jones has reviewed your dental record and found that your last preventive oral-health examination and professional dental prophylaxis (or professional dental cleaning) was back in May of 2003. Dr. Jones is concerned and has asked me to call to schedule this important appointment."

Key words and phrases including, "The doctor has asked me to call," along with giving patients the date of their last appointment, is often all it takes to prompt patients to schedule. In addition, some doctors have had great response when offering a "complimentary care appointment." This strategy has proven successful not only in reactivating patients of record, but also in attracting family and friends as new patients. A sample dialogue for this call might go like the following:

Scheduling Coordinator: "Dr. Jones is committed to preventive oral health care and is concerned about the health of all patients. In that regard, the doctor would like to provide you with a complimentary oral cancer screening examination. The appointment will be approximately 15 minutes and, of course, there will be no charge. (Schedule a one-unit appointment in the second chair.)

Depending on the patient, a brief conversation may be in order about the significance of regular oral cancer screening examinations as a life-saving mechanism. The information is important to the patient and is a significant responsibility in our role as oral health-care providers.

Written communications

If the patient does not respond after three telephone calls, a follow-up letter is sent. When mailing office correspondence, take the opportunity to include some form of patient education. Examples include information pertaining to current research on the perio-systemic link, oral cancer, and restorative and aesthetic dentistry, such as tooth-colored restorations, implants, etc. Use office newsletters and professional pamphlets.

Here are some ideas for out-of-care patient letters. Mix and match the dialogues to fit your comfort level.

Sample Letter 1: "We have tried on numerous occasions to reach you by telephone. I am concerned about the interval of time that has elapsed since we last saw you for preventive oral-health care. As you know, regular dental care and good maintenance are the keys to optimum health. This is especially true in light of the latest research which demonstrates a link between periodontal disease and chronic infections, cardiovascular diseases, low-birthweight babies, diabetes, and other systemic disorders. With this in mind, please contact our office as soon as possible to reserve an appointment."

Sample Letter 2: "In reviewing your record, I noticed that your last dental appointment was (fill in date). I do hope that everything is OK. As you know, it is important to have regular dental examinations to ensure there aren't any progressive dental problems that could lead to discomfort, infection, or loss of teeth. At your periodic dental examination, we regularly check for mouth, head, and neck disorders, such as tooth decay, broken or fractured teeth, gum diseases such as gingivitis, and most importantly, oral cancer. This is particularly important in light of the latest research which demonstrates a link between periodontal disease and chronic infections, cardiovascular diseases, low-birthweight babies, diabetes, and other systemic disorders. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions or concerns. Also note our new and expanded office hours, which now include evening and Saturday appointment times."

Establish office policy and protocols for patient retention and ensure that your team is aware of your expectations. Provide the training and the tools to allow them to do the job in the most effective manner.

Annette Ashley Linder, BS, RDH, is a recognized leader in the field and an award-winning speaker and consultant. She is a featured speaker at dental meetings and provides in--office consulting services with her team of business and clinical consultants. She may be reached at her Web site at AnnetteLinder.com, via email at Annette@annettelinder.com, or by phone at (804) 745-6015.

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