How to overcome the hang-ups of patient surveys

Dentists should not avoid patient surveys. These are useful tools that can help dentists meet patient needs and increase patient retention.

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Part 1: Simple rules for creating effective patient surveys

As a general rule in the business world, if you’re not progressing, you’re regressing. Guess what? Your dental practice is a business. Regardless of your role – doctor, hygienist, assistant, or admin – meeting the standards for a profitable business model falls on your shoulders.

What part do you play? How do you help new patient generation? For that matter, how do you ensure that patients don’t leave your practice for the one down the street with the modern office and fancy chairs? The biggest factor when it comes to staying ahead in the dentistrygame is something that doesn’t require a lot of business acumen ­– keeping your patients happy.

From the headline of this article, it’s likely that you already know what I’m going to tell you: patient satisfaction must be a conscious and monitored effort. Simply put, you have to create, administer, and react to patient surveys. But the majority of practices aren’t making use of this powerful tool for improving patient retention and practice growth.

Dental Patient SurveyMy experience has led me to conclude that the biggest hang-ups boil down to:
1. A lack of understanding about why and how to leverage patient surveys
2. Intimidation regarding survey creation and distribution
3. An insufficient desire (or a perceived lack of resources) to analyze the results and act upon them

With the right information and techniques, these hang-ups don’t need to prevent you from taking advantage of this simple tool for improving your practice and your business.

Hang-up 1: Understanding the reasons
Why patient surveys? I’m going to assume that you’re already fairly invested in providing a good experience for your patients, but there’s a problem with your good intentions. Even when you think you’re doing a great job, increasingly hard-to-please patients often won’t tell you when you aren’t meeting their expectations. They don’t let you fix it, they just move on.

Rather than relying on your patients to let you know how you’re doing, you have to make proactive efforts to monitor their experiences and continually make the changes that will help you meet (and raise) the bar.

Let’s use an example: Two dentists have competing practices in the same town. Each has 100 regular patients to start 2015. Dentist A has a fancy office and a nice staff. Dentist B, however, invites patients to take a quick survey and critique his practice. By the end of March, Dentist A still has more comfortable chairs and a nice staff. But Dentist B has 130 patients while Dentist A is down to 70. How can that be? Dentist A didn’t “fix the train” because she didn’t think it was broken, but it was. She just didn’t know because she had no way of hearing her patients’ complaints.

Dentist B studied his patient surveys. He asked open-ended questions and read the responses. He learned that patients love quick service. Nobody complained about the quality of his chairs or the lack of decor, and his staff was nice enough. But time is money; patients don’t want to spend all day at the dental office. So Dentist B implemented new protocol to get patients in and out more quickly.

Meanwhile, Dentist A improved nothing and stuck with what she thought was working, not realizing why her patients ditched her for Dentist B. Turns out, the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t hold true when it comes to maintaining a thriving dental practice.

In addition to improving patient loyalty and building up referrals, patient surveys can act as great marketing tools when added to your online reputation plan. They do this by either directing patients to a site, or using a service that can automatically post open-ended survey responses as reviews on sites such as Google and Yelp. We’ll talk more about that when we discuss tricks for administration.

Hang-up 2: Overcoming intimidation
How do you create and administer patient surveys? Understanding the importance of patient surveys isn’t enough to overcome this hang-up. You don’t know where to start, so it’s easier just ... not to. I get it. Running an office is filled with many time-consuming tasks necessary to keep your practice running, so it’s understandable that a new project seems like one more thing you don’t have time for.

But not only are patient surveys worth your time, they don’t have to be scary. Remember, the most basic survey is still better than no survey. To make it easier, here are a few pointers for what to ask and how to phrase it.

1. Ask simple multiple choice or scale (1-10) questions:
• “How satisfied were you with your visit today?”
• “How friendly was our front office staff?”
• “How was your interaction with the doctor?”
• “How comfortable did you find our office?”

Start with general questions. As time passes and you incorporate improvements, you can alter these questions to drill down and get more specific.

2. A patient survey does nothing unless it includes at least one open-ended question. So after choosing the multiple choice questions you’ll be using, correlate the results with follow-up questions that allow patients to give you more detailed feedback. For example, follow the question “On a scale of 1-5, how satisfied were you with today’s visit?“ with something like, “Was there anything about today’s visit that you found irritating or frustrating? If so, what? Feel free to be direct so we can resolve this issue for your future visits.”

Not only will open-ended questions help you understand what your practice is doing wrong, you can use these patient surveysto find out which problems have the greatest impact on patient satisfaction. For example, say you received 30 completed patient surveys in September. Twenty patients marked “5 out of 5” in satisfaction. However, of those 20 very satisfied patients, 15 of them said the doctor had bad breath. What does that tell you? Your bad breath isn’t a real problem. You may need a Tic-Tac, but the patients were still happy with their experience.

What about those 10 patients who were not completely satisfied? Seven of them complained about the doctor being “distant,” “not friendly,” “impersonal,” or “quiet.” Now you’ve got a real problem.

3. Limit yourself to 10 questions. The more time it takes patients, the less likely they are to complete a survey. Consider choosing five multiple-choice/scale questions and five open-ended, follow-up questions. You can always change these questions later as you receive feedback.

With your questions prepared, how do you plan to administer the surveys? Will you use paper or electronic? Will the surveys be in-office or at home? Will they be emailed or sent by post? Will you offer an incentive?

I’ve split this tutorial into two parts, so stay tuned for Part 2. I’ll share simple tricks for administering your surveys and incorporating the feedback. In the meantime, take a few minutes to jot down the questions you’d like to start with. If you take anything with you, let it be this – you can’t be sure you’re doing it right if you don’t ask, and you can’t start doing it better unless you listen.

ALSO BY AMY LAVANGE:
E-newsletters for dental practices made easy
5 simple secrets to improving dental patient reviews
Your dental practice: To text or not to text?

Amy LavangeAmy LaVange currently manages communications and written content for Solutionreach, the cloud-based platform previously known as Smile Reminder, that enables health-care professionals to engage and communicate with 100% of their patients.

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