Jul 31, 2019
Getting patients through the front door is just the first step.
As the dental industry grows increasingly competitive, it’s no wonder that more and more dental practices, dental corporates and health funds are deploying all sorts of strategies, from price wars to big marketing campaigns.
However, all that is merely pointless, if you can't keep your patients returning.
What’s often undervalued or taken for granted is the one critical element that can determine a practice’s growth and success: effective patient communication.
Like all relationships, whether they’re with friends, family members or colleagues, the strength of your relationship with your patients rides on how well you communicate with them.
Why should effective patient communication be my goal?
Good patient care leads to patient retention – building a lifelong relationship – which is the life source of a dental practice. Effective patient communication is a huge component of your practice’s patient experience. And it’s not just about verbal communication, but also about non-verbal interaction. These factors matter to your patients. Creating a more patient-centric practice will put more focus where it belongs – on your patients.
Better communication can positively change a patient’s mindset and preconceived notions about dentists.
Let’s face it. No one ever says they enjoy going to the dentist. Many patients have had a bad experience with a previous dentist, may have faced painful treatments or may have felt their dentist had lectured them about their oral health. Whatever their past experiences, every patient who schedules an appointment with you, especially new patients, represents an invaluable opportunity to debunk those presumptions and change those bad experiences – and to help them form a new, positive outlook on you and your practice.
Better communication puts the patient at ease
Think about the mindset of a person walking into a dentist’s practice. They are possibly anxious about tests and treatments they may have to undergo. They may have many questions, thoughts and worries racing through their mind. Will it hurt? How much will the treatment cost?
This is your chance to create a lasting positive impression by building trust and creating a lifelong relationship.
Good communication makes the patient feel in control
Patients often feel a loss of control over their own well-being when sitting in a dentist’s chair. It’s essential to make the patient in your care feel comfortable by taking the time to provide them with the knowledge they need to make an informed decision about their oral health. The more they know, the better they will feel. Plus, your confidence and ability to communicate expert opinions will empower them.
Effective communication enables patients to remember more from your examination
Using technical jargons with a patient or even with your dental assistant in front of the patient can often cause patients to feel anxious or confused.
As a result, most patients can struggle to remember what you told them during their appointment.
By honing your communication skills, you can better explain a patient’s oral health, allowing them to better understand its importance and enabling them to make more informed decisions about how they want to proceed with their oral health.
Improved patient outcomes
Numerous studies show that improving communication skills results in a marked improvement in healthcare outcomes. For example, better communication demonstrably empowers patients for better recuperation after treatment. Effective communication has a positive impact on a patient’s psychology and mental wellbeing; thus, happier patients recover faster!
Remember that even if your patients don’t like going to the dentist, it doesn’t mean they can’t like you and your practice. Your communication skills can keep your practice at the forefront of a patient’s mind when they’re thinking of recommending you as a dentist!
Though patients may be seeing you to address their physical needs, considered communication can be a much-needed emotional balm that can help soothe anxiety.
How do patients want to be treated?
Great patient care isn’t just about providing the best dental treatment for your patients.
It’s also about considering your patients’ emotional needs. It’s about easing their anxieties and providing a positive experience for them. So, what do your patients want? And how can you give it to them? Here are some common patient needs that you should keep in mind.
1. Patients want to be heard
Check your ego at the door. Sure, you know best when it comes to dental care, but your patients still want you to hear their needs and concerns. Take a few minutes at the start of each appointment to hear your patients out. Get to know them, listen to them (without interruptions), and help them to understand that what is happening in their mouth can happen with other similar patients you might have had before. Listen and empathise with them before you reach for your tools.
2. Patients want to understand
Nobody wants to be kept in the dark. It might seem like a routine dental treatment to you, but poking around inside your patient’s mouth without providing information and explanation can be a little confronting, particularly if the treatment may be prolonged, painful or both. Tell your patients what you’re going to do before you do it. And let them know how you’re progressing and how much longer each aspect of their treatment will last.
3. Patients want to feel safe
We’re all afraid of pain, and many patients are coming in to see you only when they are already in pain. Help them feel safe by giving them some control over their examination or treatment. Discuss a hand signal they can use to let you know if they’re experiencing pain or need a break. Giving them that control, albeit in a small way, can help ease their fear and anxiety.
4. Patients want options and to be in control
Don't lecture or force a single treatment option on your patients. Rather, offer your treatment and explain the pros and cons of each treatment option. It's also important to clearly explain the probable outcome of each treatment so you can manage patient expectations. Ultimately, patients want to be in control of their own oral health, with your support and guidance as their dentist.
The key benefits of good patient communication.
Effective communication isn't just good for your patients; it's good for business. It's a given that all successful dental practices must provide excellent treatment outcomes. But good patient communication can give you the edge on your patient experience and keep your patients coming back.
Listening to, understanding and responding to your patients’ needs will deliver important benefits to your practice. Increased patient satisfaction, reduced complaints, improved efficiency and better patient relationships will all boost your bottom line. Here's how:
1. Increased patient satisfaction
We all like to be treated as individuals – especially when it comes to our health. If your patients feel heard and understood, they’ll know that you have their specific needs in mind and are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach to their dental health. A personalised approach will lead to increased patient satisfaction, and satisfied patients are more likely to sing your praises to their family and friends, which means more business for you. The strongest and most effective form of marketing is always positive word of mouth.
2. Reduced patient complaints
Most complaints are due to a gap between the patient’s expectations and the actual outcome of their treatment. Communication before the treatment is a powerful antidote to this problem. Setting out a range of treatment options, explaining the results each is expected to deliver, and giving the patient control over which treatment option they select will make sure you’re on the same page. This will help you manage patient expectations and will go a long way to reducing complaints.
3. Improved efficiency
It’s much easier – and faster – to address patient concerns before a treatment than during or after one. Communicating with your patient and allowing time to address their concerns at the beginning of a consultation will prevent mid-treatment questions and apprehension that take much more time to resolve. In this way, building a few extra minutes into the front end of your appointments will likely reduce your overall consultation times and improve the overall efficiency of your practice.
4. Better patient relationships
Practising good communication will help you build trust with your patients and improve your patient relationships. Effective communication makes it much easier to debunk negative perceptions and assumptions and will encourage your patients to view you as a valued member of their healthcare team. They'll also likely feel more comfortable coming to you for advice and will more readily follow your recommendations.
The touchpoints of patient communication.
Here’s an often-forgotten secret to good patient communication: it begins well before a patient is sitting in your dentist's chair.
From their initial experience on your website and how you book and manage their appointment to how your reception staff greets and treats them, there are multiple touchpoints in the patient's experience.
Each touchpoint must inspire a positive overall patient experience, and everyone on your team must work together to make that happen. Here are the critical patient communication touchpoints that you should regularly assess.
1. Online branding
The first experience many of your potential patients will have with your practice is on your website. Ask yourself some basic questions so that your site reflects your branding. Is the site a good representation of your practice? Does it stand out from the competition? Is there enough relevant information about the various treatments you offer? Does the information contain too much technical jargon? Do you want a formal, authoritative feel or are you aiming for a more casual, friendly tone? Do the images on your website aim more at families, young adults or business professionals? Are your practice’s contact details and business hours easy to find on the site? Are you showing too many ‘scary’ dental photos?
Remember that your website needs to speak to patients – not dentists.
2. Appointment management
Whether your patients book online or over the phone, your appointment management process should be flawless. Ensure that any software platforms that are involved are bug-free and functioning as they should. Make sure everyone on your reception team understands exactly how you expect them to communicate with your patients. And be sure to confirm appointments – either by SMS or with a friendly phone call.
3. Patient arrival
Sometimes the stress of a busy practice can unfairly rub off on your patients. Make sure overworked reception staff never makes your arriving patients feel like a nuisance, and put in place clear guidelines that set out how to welcome every patient into your practice.
4. In your waiting room
Although it’s inevitable that appointments will occasionally run over time, ensure that patients in your reception area are informed about their wait times. Be understanding and apologetic if you keep them waiting beyond the scheduled start time of their appointment. In fact, if the patient has not arrived, and you know that you are running late for their appointment, give them a call to let them know before they arrive, and offer them the option to possibly reschedule their appointment.
5. During appointments
Patients can sense tension within your practice, so always treat your hygienists and dental assistants with the utmost respect during patient appointments. Keep any criticism or admonishments strictly behind closed doors. Hold regular staff meetings to give your team a chance to raise any issues in private.
6. After appointments
Take the time to walk your patients to the reception desk after an appointment, and privately let your reception staff know whether there are any sensitivities around payment. Invite the patient into a private meeting room to discuss payment plans rather than broadcast their financial situation to other patients in the reception area. And a friendly follow-up phone call a few days after an appointment will show your patients that you genuinely care about their welfare.
The ultimate goal of good and effective patient communication
So, how do you know whether you and your team are practising good, solid and effective patient communication?
When you start seeing your patient trust you.
With patient relationships, trust is everything. But trust isn’t built in a day. It’s the result of effective, practice-wide patient communication every time a patient has contact with your practice.
Get it right, and patient trust will form a strong foundation for the long-term success of your practice. Here's why building trust should be the ultimate goal of effective patient communication.
Trust breeds honesty
When a patient trusts you, they can be open and honest about their needs and concerns. They’ll more freely communicate their fears with you and will be more open about sharing their symptoms, fears or past experiences with you. This, of course, allows you to better understand and approach your patient, from providing more relevant treatment options to managing their expectations and helping them make an informed decision about their oral health. Each step will help debunk any preconceived notions they might have about coming to see a dentist.
Trust encourages ownership
Patients who trust you will take your recommendations and advice much more seriously. They'll be more likely to take ownership of their oral health and show more interest in their dental conditions. This will make them more receptive to any preventative measures you recommend and more vigilant about booking regular check-ups with you.
Trust improves treatment outcomes
Managing patient expectations can be a significant challenge for dentists. However, building trust will help you bridge the gap between what patients think they need and what you know they need to achieve the outcome they are expecting. If the patient has ownership of their oral health and also understand the damaging results of any serious conditions, they will ask you for the treatment instead of you having to recommend elective treatment (that are usually of a higher cost). They'll also be more likely to follow your advice and instructions to get the best out of their treatments.
Trust increases empathy
When patients trust you, they'll be more likely to stick with you when things go wrong. A patient who trusts you know that you have their best interests at heart and will be more likely to show empathy if they are accidentally double-booked or if you are running late for their appointment.
Trust creates patient loyalty
Without trust, a patient is unlikely to recommend you to their friends and family. However, a patient who trusts you will readily bring their family members into your practice, recommend you to their friends, leave positive online reviews, and generally become a cheerleader for your practice - for life.
Good communication essentially comes down to treating each patient as an individual.
Take the time to listen to their specific needs and concerns and offer your expert advice without lecturing them, and you’ll build trust over time. Get that right across every aspect of your practice and you’ll create long-term patient relationships that will be the unique backbone of your success.
This article was originally published by Prime Practice and reproduced with permission.
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