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Communicating safely and effectively during COVID-19

Oct. 13, 2020
The importance of keeping patients informed and engaged during the pandemic cannot be stressed enough. Josh Weiner has closely followed recent trends and shares how dentists can best communicate with patients during the new normal.

This year has been challenging, to say the least. One of the biggest challenges has simply been dealing with change. Change, always uncomfortable and often unwanted, was suddenly thrust upon the entire world in a way not seen in this generation. Most dental practices closed. Many adopted remote services such as teledentistry. New safety protocols were implemented. Even simply talking to patients was suddenly very different than it was prior to the virus.

As a company that facilitates communication between providers and patients, Solutionreach has had a first-row seat to witness drastic changes that occurred in patient communication. When COVID-19 hit the US in March, the company saw a 635% growth in informative and instructional emails and newsletters being sent from dentists to their patients. At the same time, appointment reminders decreased significantly. In April, the total appointment reminder volume was just 8% of the pre-COVID reminder volume when compared to January and February.

New ways of reaching out to patients exploded—with teledentistry leading the way. Fifty-five percent of dentists surveyed by Solutionreach had a teledentistry solution in place after February 2020 compared to just 15% of practices before COVID-19. Solutionreach data is now seeing growth in appointment reminder volume, with practices reporting an increase of 67% in recent months, which suggests more practices are reopening.

As practices reopen and adjust to this new normal, clear communication of appointment protocol, how to opt into a teledentistry appointment, and other instructions are critical to the success of practices and the safety of staff and patients.

How often and in which ways should practices be communicating with patients?

Data shows that while the pandemic is still around, it is best if dental practices err on the side of overcommunicating rather than undercommunicating. Unfortunately, with everything else dental offices are dealing with, communication can easily get overlooked. But its importance should not be underestimated. In fact, a recent study found that the level of patient satisfaction with health-care communication during COVID-19 decreased by 7% compared to pre-COVID numbers. Many patients feel confused about the status of their dental practices and want better communication from their dentists.

 A few best practices to get you going

  1. Send educational emails at least monthly. These emails should include all types of information on what your practice is doing to keep patients safe. Recent research shows that 87% of Americans have put off care during the pandemic due to fear. Sending regular newsletters that showcase the safety protocols you’ve put into place is critical to help alleviate this fear. Be sure to share this information more than once. Just because you talked about it in your last newsletter doesn’t mean everyone saw it. Remember, overcommunicate!
  2. Send prescreening messages. The easiest way to gather COVID-related screening information is by text message or email prior to a visit. In these messages, you can also remind patients about your safety requirements such as temperature checks or the wearing of masks. We’ve heard too many stories about patients showing up for visits and needing to be turned away because they have concerning symptoms. These patients may become irate when asked to reschedule. It’s always better to address these issues before a patient arrives.
  3. Appointment reminders. With rising cancellations due to COVID, effective use of appointment reminders has never been more important. Patients are much more likely to show up for their dental appointments if they receive timely reminders. This is especially true for patients who may have set up their appointment weeks or months in advance. Start by finding out which reminder method each patient prefers and then follow that preference. The most common methods include text message, email, and phone call. If you are uncertain which method a patient prefers, text message is the most popular. Be sure to add the question to your intake forms in the future. Once you know how a patient wants to be reminded, the next step is to develop a good cadence for sending those reminders. The data shows that sending reminders three weeks, three days, and three hours prior to an appointment results in the best confirmation rate by patients. This is called the 3-3-3 method. Start by setting your appointment reminders to this cadence and then adjust as needed.
  4. Previsit instructions. In conjunction with sending your COVID prescreening messages, you should also be sure to give your patients previsit instructions. These are best done by text message but can also be completed via email or phone. In these messages, you should share any information patients need to know prior to their visit. For example, if your office has shut the waiting room and instituted a park and text method, you should let patients know before arrival. These instructions are especially important if you are conducting a teledentistry visit.

As we continue to develop and refine processes to best meet the needs of patients during the pandemic, it is critical that communication is at the forefront of the battle. By sharing timely, important information with patients, practices will be able to mitigate fears, increase safety levels, and fill those schedules. 

About the Author

Josh Weiner

Josh Weiner is the CEO of Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Weiner served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Before Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Weiner is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children. He and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah's mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner.