Marketing infection control

June 1, 1996
With a little creativity and effort, infection-control procedures in your practice can be a marketing tool.

With a little creativity and effort, infection-control procedures in your practice can be a marketing tool.

Kimberlee J. Roth

OSHA Compliance, Infection Control, Guidelines, Universal Precautions, Bloodborne Path- ogen Standards, Requirements, Hazards, Communication....

For many practitioners, these terms evoke feelings of frustration and intimidation due to their complexity and cost. Aside from the obvious and important benefit of controlling the spread of infectious diseases, infection-control procedures rarely are viewed by the dental team as a positive addition to their everyday practice of dentistry. So much time, energy and dollars are spent on infection control in dental offices each day that you may not have ever thought about how you can use it to your advantage. But, with a little creativity and effort you actually can turn these procedures into an effective marketing tool for your practice.

In the days of increasing competition, increasing consumer demands, popular media coverage of the "dangers" of dentistry and decreasing fees throughout the health-care industry, it is important to recognize and take advantage of every available opportunity to market and build your practice. Marketing your infection-control procedures is inexpensive in terms of time and money, especially when you think about the result: increased patient confidence in the care your practice provides, leading to retention of your current patient base and an increase in new-patient referrals to your dental practice.

Begin marketing your infection-control procedures with the very first contact potential patients have with your practice. Be sure to prominently state in all ads that you place (newspapers, telephone directories, community publications, pamphlets and brochures, billboards, etc.) that state-of-the-art sterilization and infection-control procedures are adhered to in your practice. If your practice uses radio or television spots to advertise or for "on-hold" messages, add a similar statement to your script. You may take your infection-control procedures for granted, but your patients won`t. If you don`t tell your patients that you follow these procedures, they may not automatically assume that you do. In fact, without a positive statement from you, they may assume that you don`t!

When a new patient calls to book a first appointment, build in a few extra minutes to his/her appointment to allow ample time for him/her to fill out your new patient information, health history, etc. as well as to give him/her a brief tour of your office. When the new patient arrives, invite him or her to look through a Dental Office Environmental Safety Album in your reception area.

This book can be easily and inexpensively put together by a member of your staff. The book can be as simple or as elaborate as you`d like and all of the items needed to create it can be purchased at your local office-supply store. Try using a photo album or three-ring binder. Take photographs (a Polaroid camera will work just fine) of each member of your staff in his/her personal protective equipment. Use labels and captions to explain each photograph, each piece of equipment and its purpose. You also should include photos of your sterilizer(s), sharps container, a sample Material Safety Data Sheet, as well as other items. Be sure that your captions are short, to the point and use simple, non-technical terms that your patients will easily understand.

Also in your reception area, why not post any certificates you have received from infection-control, HIV/AIDS and/or OSHA-compliance seminars you and your staff have attended? Also be sure to display certificates of participation granted by your sterilizer and radiation-monitoring services, as well as certificates of compliance received from consultants specializing in infection-control compliance. Displaying these items will draw your patients` attention to your concern for their safety and also may prompt them to ask you and your staff additional questions. These questions are a great opportunity to allay irrational fears and educate, as well as demonstrate your commitment to a safe environment.

During the new patient`s pre-appointment time, you should have your patient coordinator give the patient a brief, guided tour of your practice. To minimize disruption to the practice, the tour should be kept short, within sight, but out of the way of busy staff areas, and should protect the privacy of other patients being treated. The tour should include the sterilization area(s) of your practice, and the guide should point out equipment used as well as explain any infection-control procedures being performed at that moment. Remember to keep explanations simple unless the patient demonstrates a more advanced understanding or requests more detailed information.

Once the patient is seated in the operatory, staff should wipe down surfaces, wash hands, glove, open sealed instrument packets, etc., in full view of the patient so he/she sees that these precautions are being taken, that gloves aren`t being reused and instruments are sterile. Instruct staff to explain their actions while preparing for treatment to further educate the patient. For example, "I`ll be with you in a moment, Ms. Jones. I just want to wash my hands before I put my gloves on. We use antimicrobial soap, which kills bacteria. I wash my hands with it before I put my gloves on and after I take them off. I use a new pair of gloves with each patient I see." Encourage patient questions and tailor your responses to their age and level of understanding. Remember, although you might be frustrated by the lengths you must go to ensure compliance, you must not let your patients perceive this. Each patient should be made to feel important, comfortable and confident in the care and service you are providing. If you appear frustrated or cynical, patients may interpret this as a lack of concern for their safety and well-being.

Since you will be inviting and encouraging dialogue about infection control, be prepared to receive all sorts of comments and questions from patients. Be ready to answer some hard, pointed questions, as well. Patients may ask if your practice treats HIV/AIDS-infected patients, how you feel about mandatory HIV testing, etc.

Take each comment and question seriously, and take the time to answer it honestly and completely. As we all know from our life experiences, there are few things more frustrating than feeling like a question we asked was not responded to directly or taken seriously. Work with your staff to come up with standard answers to commonly-asked questions and coach them on how to handle the difficult ones. Your patients will appreciate your time and honesty.

When the visit is over, do not hit your patients with an "infection-control fee" in addition to your charges. Some offices charge an additional amount (usually between $3 and $15) to help offset costs of infection control. While practice-management consultants have different, valid opinions, this author believes that this is not a method to use if you want to retain patients.

There is no dispute that it costs a lot to purchase infection-control supplies and services. However, these costs should be considered part of your overhead and should be tracked carefully and taken into account each time you readjust your fee structure, but not passed on to the patient in the form of an additional charge. If you are considering the feasibility of participation with a managed-care plan, be sure to include these costs in the calculation of your overhead costs.

If you already participate with a managed-care plan(s), check with the plan administrator regarding infection-control fees. Some plans will supplement your capitation with a small, per-visit payment to help offset your costs. Many plans prohibit participating dentists from charging an additional infection-control fee, so review your participation agreement with your attorney or management consultant before implementing such a fee.

Compliance with infection-control standards can be costly, time-consuming and confusing to implement and maintain. However, you can use them to educate your patients and market your practice by explaining infection-control procedures simply and honestly.

The suggestions in this article can be implemented in any dental office and are only the beginning. Take a hard look at your own practice to see what other opportunities exist. Your patients will appreciate your time and efforts to inform them and ensure their safety.

The return on your investment of a few dollars and some additional time spent with each patient will be large: increased patient loyalty and satisfaction, educated patients who do not fear dentistry, new patient referrals, a staff that takes pride in their work and practice growth.

The author serves as the director of Client Services and also is a consultant with The Consulting Network, a firm that provides continuing-education programs, professional-development training and management consulting for dental professionals. She may be contacted at 800-557-3838.