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Retrain patients to avoid appointment cancellation

Dec. 15, 2021
In many dental offices, staff have made it easy for patients to cancel and reschedule. Luckily, there are some simple ways to get things back on track.
Laura Nelson, MS, FAADOM, Founder of Front Office Rocks

Most dental offices have a cancellation issue, and I am going out on a limb to say that it’s our fault. Dental office teams have been working hard to teach patients that it’s ok to cancel an appointment. The same people who will bend over backwards to make it to their hairdresser or a nail appointment will call to cancel with their dentist at the drop of a hat. There are three ways we’ve allowed this to happen, and luckily, we have the power to fix it.

First, dental teams aren’t communicating the importance of the appointment when it’s scheduled. We must remember what we do for a living. We put drills and needles in our patients’ mouths and then ask them to pay us for it. Think about that for just a moment. What we do is not very much fun, and if patients can find a way to get out of it, they will.  

When it’s time to schedule the next appointment, staff are often very casual about it. A team member offers the patient the opportunity to schedule, and when the patient declines or says they’ll call to schedule later, the team member, not wanting to be too pushy, responds with an “ok.” The words being used by the team member many times are timid. They want to come off friendly and not too pushy, and with the patient pushing back, the employee often backs down.

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The second way we’ve inadvertently encouraged cancellation is through failure of the clinical team to back up front desk staff. Too many times, the clinical team finishes with the patient and then drops them at the front desk. The verbal communication between the clinical team and the front office team doesn’t cover the importance of the need to schedule the next appointment. The patient does not see the hand-off of the information to schedule the next appointment, so they attempt to get out of scheduling once the clinical team member is out of earshot. Remember, we put drills and needles in their mouths. Many patients are going to find any way to avoid that if they can.

Last, we make it too easy to cancel or reschedule at the last minute. Our patients won’t cancel with their hairdresser because they know if they do, it will be a very long time before they can get scheduled again. They know there’s a sense of urgency to show up, and they make every effort to do that. Their dental appointment, on the other hand, is much easier to cancel. Often, even if the office charges a fee, the fee is waived, and we share the many openings available to try to fill the schedule. On top of that, many offenders reschedule repeatedly, and dental staff continue to allow it to happen.

The good news is that these issues can be resolved with training and good communication. The first step is to improve the verbal skills used with patients. This will help dental team members feel confident in their ability to work with patients. Then, the team needs to work on hand-offs and verbal skills with one another in front of patients. Office staff should work together to develop a scheduling policy and make sure the entire team enforces it consistently. Next, it’s time to walk the walk and talk the talk. Let patients know in a friendly, professional, and controlled way that going forward, they will be held to the scheduling policy. If they continue to cancel—especially last minute—they may no longer have the option to schedule with the office in advance. When patients realize the office follows and respects their scheduling policy, they will learn to do the same.