What Do Patients Want?
What do patients value about your dental practice? What makes a new patient like what he/she sees enough to keep coming back? How do we keep patients happy and satisfied so that they refer their family and friends?
These are not new questions, but questions dentists and staff have been asking themselves for decades. While a patient survey can let you know where you stand with patients, and may be the only way to directly measure your effectiveness with your existing patients, there are some generalizations that can be made. Based on over 25 years as a practicing dental hygienist, I have discovered that the following considerations appear to be in the forefront of our patient's minds.
1. Patients want to know that their dentist, hygienist, and other office staff are competent. They want to trust that the treatment recommendations they are receiving are based on training, skill, care and judgment. If you listen to what people talk about when they are considering a practice, one of the first concerns that will be mentioned is: “Is the dentist good?”
What does this mean? How can patients, with limited knowledge of how dental treatment is accomplished, decide whether or not you are a “good” dentist? One way patients evaluate this quality is by how much or how little they are “hurt” when receiving dental care. While we in dentistry don’t like to use words like “hurt” and “pain,” our patients have no qualms about it. They will say things such as, “I had those fillings done and I wasn’t in pain afterwards,” or “When he gave me the shot, it didn’t hurt.” Conversely they might say, “I wasn’t really numb and getting that crown done was very painful.” Hygienists are also heavily judged on infliction of pain. If a hygienist is deemed to be gentle, her competence perception goes up. Therefore, the absence of pain is an important factor for patients in deciding that a dentist or hygienist is competent.
Patients also evaluate their treatment based on how long their restorations last. For example, how long did a crown stay cemented in the mouth? How long did their fillings last before having to be replaced? While no one presumes that dental restorations will last forever, patients do have an expectation as to how long “good” ones will function. In my experience, for most people it seems as if five years is a minimum acceptable amount of time for restorations to last. Patients who have to have crowns or fillings redone in less time are suspicious that the originals were not that good to begin with. Is this fair? Likely not. However, it is another way that patients decide whether or not their dentist is competent.
Where staff is concerned, knowledge of billing and insurance as well as general courtesy are important. Patients have been known to say, “I like Dr. X, but his front desk staff are rude.” Conversely, they may state, “Dr. X is good and his office staff are helpful. They helped me find a payment program that made it possible for me to get both of my crowns done this year.”
So, under the heading of competence, the absence of pain and long lasting restorations are two ways patients evaluate the clinical side of a practice. Knowledge and courtesy are important from the clerical side.
2. Patients want to know that you understand what is important to them. Patients are unhappy when they think that their main considerations are not being addressed. For example, a patient comes in with a small chip on the incisal edge of #8, along with generalized moderate periodontitis, and three posterior teeth that need MOD restorations. The patient hates the way his front tooth looks. If the dentist does not understand that the chip on #8 is the most important consideration for this patient, he risks driving him away. Making #8 a priority will likely result in the patient accepting treatment for his other more serious problems. Letting #8 “wait” can result in the patient looking for a dentist who listens a little better.
3. Patients want to know what their costs will be. Nothing seems to cause more trouble in a practice then confusion over fees and insurance. Patients don’t typically make fees their only consideration, but for most, the cost of dental care is a definite concern. They also don’t appear to object to paying what they think are “high” fees for their care, when the perception is that they are getting something of value. What really causes a rift is when a patient does not understand the limited nature of their insurance coverage, or when fees are not explained in detail in advance of treatment.
Many dentists worry that if a patient is given the total fee for their treatment in advance, they may think it is too expensive and therefore not return. However, it is worse if the patient receives all treatment, never pays for it, gets angry, tells all their friends and family, and also never returns. Frank discussion of fees is important to patients. They also appreciate your help with payment plans or programs such as Care Credit or a no or low interest short term loan from a local bank. When they discover a way to help them afford the treatment you have recommended, they will often go ahead with what they need.
These three considerations are certainly not the only reasons patients might keep coming to an office, but they do appear to be important. Dentists and staff who want to retain as many patients as possible can further this goal with ongoing efforts to keep treatment skills high (efficient and effective anesthesia and other types of pain control plus adequate restorative tools), honing their communication skills (addressing a patient's prime concerns), and dealing with finances realistically.
It is an old, old saying: “Patients make paydays possible.” Attracting and keeping patients is essential for any successful dental practice.
Carol Tekavec RDH is the director of Hygiene for McKenzie Management. Carol can improve your hygiene department in just one day of training “in your office”. Interested in knowing more about how to improve your hygiene department? Email email@example.com.
Carol is also a speaker on hygiene efficiency and profitability for McKenzie Management. Interested in having Carol speak to your dental society or study club? Click here
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