How Are You Responding To Patient Worries?
by Sally McKenzie CEO
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Although dentistry tends to fare much better than other industries during difficult economic times, don’t expect to dodge the impact of the current financial tsunami entirely. Many of you are reporting that your practices are coming face to face with worried patients.
That’s no surprise because we know finances are on the minds of many. In fact, money and the state of the economy were two of the top sources of stress for 80 percent of Americans, according to the American Psychological Association’s recent 2008 Stress in America survey. So what should you be doing to put your patients at ease? Listen. Be flexible. And strengthen practice/patient relationships.
First and foremost, stop talking and start listening. What are patients telling you about the companies they work for, about their friends and family’s situations? Listen, learn and adapt. Keep in mind that what was perfectly acceptable in the past to patients may not be today. Why? Because patient circumstances or patients’ perceptions of their circumstances have changed. Therefore, practices must change—not abandon—change their approaches.
For example, last week I talked about how a practice that had a successful record of following up with patients that had treatment diagnosed but not scheduled was experiencing some negative reactions. Seemingly overnight this approach was viewed as “hard-sell tactics” by some patients. It was imperative that the practice not disregard the concerns raised but respond appropriately and adjust to them.
Don’t panic. It would have been easy for the office to simply abandon follow-up calls to patients. But that would have been a reactionary and panicked approach. Instead the practice needed to evaluate the process in its entirety and determine what adjustments should be made.
Similarly, dental teams may feel that they should curb treatment recommendations during these times. Absolutely not. Continue to diagnose patient needs and wants according to your practice philosophy. However, be aware that a patient may be worried about a possible job layoff or other economic concern and may not want to pursue a larger treatment plan beyond what is immediately necessary. It’s essential that patients feel you are sensitive to their circumstances. If they feel that you are oblivious or unconcerned about current economic conditions, they are more likely to react negatively.
Also keep in mind that patients may be embarrassed by their situations, particularly if they have histories of pursuing recommended treatment, always keeping their appointments and always paying their bills without the need for special arrangements. It may be difficult for them to acknowledge that they cannot move forward on your full recommendation or pay the full fee up front.
Nonetheless, you and your team can present a treatment plan that conveys to a patient that you are presenting options to address immediate and long-term needs, as well as patient desires. Moreover, you will have reinforced that you value this patient in your practice in lean as well as lush economic times. And when circumstances improve, you’ll see the other procedures scheduled.
In addition to recommending treatment according to both patient needs and wants, continue to educate patients. Emphasizing the importance of oral health and its impact on overall health has never been more important. Communicate with patients regularly through periodic email newsletters that reinforce the value and necessity of preventive oral health care.
I also recommend that you take a look at your fees. Consider foregoing an increase in fees this year. Several companies are moving in this direction for the coming year, including Disney. Send a letter to your patients telling them that you are sensitive to the fact that some of them are experiencing difficulties as a result of the current economy. Say that in an effort to be responsive; your office is going to hold the line on fees this year, even though costs have increased for everyone (including your practice). Provide treatment payment options such as CareCredit, or allow patients to build up a balance on their accounts or pay for more costly procedures in two or three equal payments on a specific schedule.
At every visit, stress the value of care and spell out for patients in writing exactly what services and products you and your team provided. Remember, just like retail customers who are still shopping for goods and services, patients are still investing in dental treatment; the difference is that today’s consumers are spending their dollars more wisely. But just like food, gas and clothing, oral health care is a necessity, not a luxury.
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