The importance of measuring patient satisfaction

April 6, 2010

Note from Dental Economics managing editor Kevin Henry: I recently had the chance to chat with Troy Pladson, the general manager of Dentra, a company that is on the forefront of measuring patient satisfaction in the dental practice. I wanted to ask him about the concept of satisfaction, and why it's so important.

DE: Many dental practices don't track patient satisfaction. Why do you think that is?
Troy: Dental practices are busy places. Throughout the day, staff is mainly focused on keeping the schedule on track while caring for patients. Therefore they often monitor patient satisfaction by relying on a “gut feeling.” I think few practices have gone the extra step to systematically measure and monitor patient satisfaction because they don’t realize it can be done in an automated fashion, and it doesn’t require additional data entry work for their staff.

DE:Why is measuring and tracking patient satisfaction so important for dental practices?
Troy: Dentists understand that satisfied patients become loyal patients who keep coming back, and who are more likely to refer friends and family. In other words, patient satisfaction does affect a practice’s bottom line. At Dentra, we think it is important to move beyond the “gut feeling,” and systematically measure and monitor how patients feel about their experiences so that the dental team has honest feedback about the practice. This information can help boost morale and marketing messages, as well as engage the team on areas for continuous improvement. Monitoring patient satisfaction over time enables a practice to celebrate improvements and nip unwanted trends in the bud.

DE: What are some of the key questions that a dentist should ask patients to determine their satisfaction?
Troy: It’s important to ask about different aspects of the patient’s experience because different dimensions of care determine overall satisfaction. These include 1) perceived ease in getting care, 2) interaction with the dentist and dental team, 3) satisfaction with office facilities, 4) satisfaction with cost and payment, 5) likeliness to return, and 6) likeliness to recommend. In addition, we think it is important to give patients the opportunity to praise the practice and provide constructive feedback.

DE: What is the advantage of using a standardized set of patient satisfaction questions?
Troy: First, a standardized set of questions allows you to compare current performance to past performance. Let’s use this example: Perhaps your practice is experiencing low patient satisfaction with regards to explaining things in ways patients can understand. Based on this information, you begin using educational materials that had, until this time, been sitting on the shelf or untapped in your computer. You can look at the same standard measurement regarding satisfaction in explanations weeks after making the change to see if it made a difference. Just as importantly, a standardized set of questions allows you to assess your performance in comparison to others. Is a score of 92 out of 100 good in a specific area? What does it mean? External benchmarks help you add context to your scores, and encourages accountability for performance within your team, and more importantly, to your patients.

DE: How do you introduce and position the satisfaction measurement concept to patients if it hasn’t been done in the practice before?
Troy: Keep it simple and positive. We have found that the best results occur when the front office staff provides descriptive information during the patient check-in process. It can be delivered verbally or on paper in concert with other efforts to update the patient’s chart. The basic message is, “Do we have your current e-mail address? Here’s why we ask. In an effort to continually improve customer service, Dr. X has decided to use an online patient satisfaction survey. Information from the survey helps us better assess where we can make improvements that matter to you and to the rest of our patients. A link to the survey will be sent to your e-mail address tonight. We hope you’ll participate. It’s short and confidential. We also promise our survey vendor will not share your information with anyone.” Having the dentist and dental staff talk about the survey at the end of a visit, or mention their commitment to patient satisfaction at the practice, can also boost response rates.

DE: What should a dental practice do if it receives negative feedback from patients?
Troy: Talk about it as group and decide how to take action. Negative feedback can come in the form of a low score or a negative comment in the satisfaction survey. When selecting a patient satisfaction measurement system, a practice should inquire about the capability to automatically receive alerts if either of those circumstances happens. Open-ended questions should also be phrased in such a way as to direct the patient to provide constructive rather than negative feedback.

DE: Patient satisfaction extends to all areas of the practice, correct? How do you rally your staff/team behind it?
Troy: That’s correct. Every member of the team plays a crucial role in how care is delivered at the practice and ultimately how patients feel about their experience. It’s therefore important to foster a work culture that takes pride in delivering a great experience to patients and feels accountable. A powerful way to do this is to measure performance and report back to the team on a regular basis. For example, positive patient comments from the past week can be shared during weekly meetings or morning huddles to set a positive tone. Positive quotes can also be included in staff performance reviews or employee of the month programs. Another option is to post monthly satisfaction index reports in the staff lunchroom, hold a monthly or quarterly meeting to review successes, and discuss avenues for improvement.

DE: What kind of return on investment (ROI) can dental practices expect as a result of using patient satisfaction measuring and reporting?
Troy: Not all patient satisfaction measuring and reporting systems are created equal. When selecting one, a practice should consider not only the financial return (e.g., for every dollar I spend I get two in return), but also the collateral or non-financial return. This results from a system that includes empowering a team to feel inspired by patients, accountable for performance, and unified in adopting measureable goals. Does the patient satisfaction and reporting system offer insight back to the team or is it more consumer-oriented? Is it easy to communicate results and discuss options for improvement? In terms of financial ROI calculations, a provider of such solutions should be able to provide practices with an easy-to-use ROI calculator to compute a number that takes into account each practice’s unique set of characteristics.

DE: Why should dentists care about how they compare to other dentists in their neighborhood?
Troy: External benchmarks help dentists put their score in perspective. While at first they may be satisfied to see their scores improve or even stabilize relative to past performance, those scores take on a whole new meaning if they see that they are well above or well below other dentists in the market. External benchmarks also serve to help practitioners see how patients perceive their experience at their practice relative to others. This can help dentists decide if there are elements about care delivery at the practice that resonate more effectively with their patients than with patients at other practices. They can then use this information to differentiate themselves in the market. The flipside is that understanding areas where they are not outperforming others can help proactively implement changes.

DE: What is the first thing that a dental practice should do to kick-start a patient satisfaction measurement program?
Troy: First, the doctors should hold a team meeting to explain how the system works and why they decided to implement it. Make it fun! Talk about the value the team brings to the patients and about wanting to give patients an easy channel to communicate praise as well as suggestions to the team without adding to their daily tasks. Discuss the impact of maintaining and nurturing long-term patient relationships. Finally, talk about how much more fun the workday can be when patients feel heard and the team feels confident and patients are satisfied with the care being delivered.

As general manager of Seattle-based Dentra, Troy Pladson is responsible for the overall management of the company’s day-to-day operations. He has more than 20 years of experience in sales, marketing, consulting, strategy, and business development for technology companies. Prior to Dentra, Troy served as vice president of sales, marketing, and business development for InterSAN, Inc., and was responsible for its sale to Finisar. Before joining InterSAN, he was vice president of business development and sales operations for SupportSoft, Inc. Prior to that, Troy spent several years at IBM, where his last position was director of strategy, marketing, and business development at IBM/Tivoli's Storage Management Business Unit. An active volunteer in community affairs, Troy holds a BA in Finance from Seattle University.

For more information on Dentra, please call (866) 200-9220, e-mail [email protected], or visit