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Changes dentists should make before they reopen

April 30, 2020
Sally McKenzie guides dentists through some of the steps they'll need for change, both now and later. These may include creating some new financial arrangements for patients, and improving patient communication.
Sally McKenzie, CEO of McKenzie Management

These last few months have been a struggle. Like many dentists, you opted to close your office to help keep your staff and patients safe. But as a result, your practice has suffered, and you’re more than ready to reopen your doors.

While you’ll be chairside soon, it’s important to remember you can’t go back to business as usual. Things are different now. Patients have new financial concerns, as well as fears about exposing themselves to coronavirus. Bottom line: you’re going to have to work harder to get patients on your schedule.  

Before you reopen, it’s important to think about the changes you’ll need to make to be successful. Not sure where to start? That’s OK. I’m here to offer you guidance. Here are my tips:

Be willing to help patients financially

It’s safe to say your patients have been through a lot these last few months. Some have lost jobs while others have tried to balance work with new home-schooling commitments. They’re worried about keeping themselves and their families healthy, even as businesses and communities start to reopen.

Those who have lost their jobs likely won’t have dental insurance or the money to pay for treatment on their own. This is going to be a common story you hear from patients, and you and your team members need to be prepared with compassionate responses that show you understand what they’re going through.

Talk to patients about any incentives you’re offering to help ease the financial burden of treatment and discuss third-party financing options such as CareCredit. It will be a relief to know your office has a give-back plan to lower the cost of their visits and that they can pay in small amounts each month. It might just be enough for them to feel comfortable accepting treatment.

Improve patient communication

Take this opportunity to train team members on how to respond to patients with empathy and concern. Here are some suggested responses to patient questions and concerns.

That’s a good question. Let me get you the answer.

I understand how you feel but let me assure you that Dr. Davis and our entire team will always make your health our top priority.

Thank you for sharing your concerns and feelings.

We respect your decision and want you to know we’re here for you.

If you stay helpful, polite, and positive during all patient interactions, it will help patients relax. They’ll feel a stronger connection to the practice and will be more likely to schedule treatment.

Start communicating now

Don’t wait until your office is open to reach out to patients. Use your patient communication system to keep them informed about your reopening plans, the new safety precautions you’re taking, and any treatment incentives you’re offering. Both text and email are great ways to connect with patients right now. Doing so will help keep dentistry and your practice top of mind.

Focus on providing exceptional customer service

Remember, patients are going to be stressed and maybe even fearful the first time they come back to the practice. It’s critical to do everything you can to put them at ease.

For example, patients will be nervous about sitting too close to others in the reception area. I suggest you space seating at least six feet apart to alleviate those concerns. It’s also a good idea to throw away magazines that could harbor germs and to offer free Wi-Fi for patients to enjoy while they wait.

Consider updating your hours

When patients finally go back to work, it’s going to be difficult for many of them to take time off. That means they’ll likely be interested in early morning, evening, and weekend appointments. As you schedule patients, keep track of who asks for times outside of your normal hours and do your best to accommodate those requests. Remember, you have to make it easy for patients to schedule.

Rethink your schedule

In the past, you likely scheduled patients with an overlapping mode of at least 10 minutes. While you had one patient in the chair, the next one was waiting in the reception area. While this was once an efficient way to handle patient flow, it likely isn’t going to work now.

I suggest you schedule with five to 10 minutes between start time to limit the number of people in the reception area. You can also ask patients to call the practice when they arrive and wait in the car instead of coming in right away, then you can text or call them when another patient leaves. Patients will appreciate this new way of scheduling that promotes social distancing.

Only reopen with the team members you need

Your schedule will likely be light at first, so it’s important to open with a smaller team so you can keep payroll costs down. I also suggest paying your hygienist on a commission or a small base plus commission until you get a feel for patient flow.

Yes, there’s a lot to think about as you reopen, but please remember you’re not alone. There are people who can provide guidance as you navigate through these challenging times. I’m offering help through my new virtual coaching. Reach out and we’ll set up a time to discuss the changes you need to make in order to successfully reopen.

SALLY MCKENZIE is CEO of McKenzie Management, a full-service, nationwide dental practice management company. Contact her at (877) 777-6151 or [email protected].

Editor's note: For updates regarding the COVID-19 crisis and dental office shutdowns, visit the DentistryIQ Coronavirus Resource Center.