Is your current patient communication strategy contributing to your practice goals? For many dental offices, the answer is, “No,” and it’s not because the team is doing anything inherently wrong or doesn’t care. It’s because practice goals and communication are usually seen as two distinct things. In reality, they’re completely intertwined.
Research shows one of the leading causes of complaints is poor patient communication, but complaints are only a symptom of underlying problems.
What Does Poor Patient Communication Look Like?
- Patients falling through the cracks
- Unconfirmed appointments
- Missed appointments and no-shows
- Holes in your schedule
- High attrition rates
- Frazzled team members
- Inefficient time use and phone tag
- Profit loss
With that in mind, shoring up your patient communication strategy actually addresses all these areas, so it contributes to the health of your dental practice.
On this page, we’ll dig into communication methods practices can use, when they work best, and what ideal communication workflows look like, so they help your practice grow stronger and elevate patient care.
Should Your Dental Practice Automate?
A traditional dental practice communication strategy relies heavily on postcards and phone calls. There are a few issues with this.
Problems with Traditional Patient Communication in Dentistry
Postcards are expensive. If we take human labor out of the equation, you’re still paying a minimum of $0.50 for a postcard and stamp. Assuming you have a single hygienist who sees eight patients per day, you send 173 postcards per month, for a total of $86.
Labor adds up. Let’s say you spend three minutes confirming each appointment. Your practice probably spends much more because you’re conversing with patients, rescheduling, and handling other tasks too. Assuming the hygienist and the doctor each see eight patients, for a total of 16, that’s 48 minutes on the phone per day or 17.3 hours per month. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics places the hourly rate of an assistant at $19.27 per hour, bringing your total labor to $333.37 per month just for confirming appointments. If you’re tracking along, you’ve now just spent $419.37 reminding and confirming.
People ignore calls. A recent national survey indicates 97% of patients ignore calls from unknown numbers and businesses. Many don’t even bother to listen to the messages you leave. That means your single three-minute confirmation call becomes several calls.
No-shows and cancellations are high. A typical practice has about a 10% no-show or cancellation rate, with some going as high as 20% or more. We’re going very conservative with these examples, so let’s say you lose 10% of your 16 patients per day, for a total of 35 patients going MIA in a month. And, again, being conservative, they’re all booked only for prophies at $85 each. That’s a loss of $2,975 in production monthly ($35,700 a year!). Your postcard and phone call strategy now costs $3394.37 per month and you haven’t even added in the cost of trying to fill those vacancies yet.
Benefits of Automating Patient Communication
There are high-quality affordable automated patient reminder systems. At Practice-Web, our automated text message reminder system is about half the price of an advanced third-party app (click here for 50% off and a free trial on top of the already low price or click here for a demo.) However, it actually functions better because it’s designed to work specifically with Practice-Web.
Most texts are answered immediately. Around 95% of texts are read and responded to within three minutes per the latest research.
Labor expenses reduce greatly. This is what most people focus on when they’re talking about automation. Nobody’s making calls or playing phone tag. With a solid integrated automation system, your communication logs are automatically created and your appointments are automatically confirmed within the schedule too.
Confirmations skyrocket. Research shows confirmation rates jump 300% when businesses switch from phone to text messages.
No-shows and cancellations drop. Practices see an average of 22.95% fewer no-shows when automated reminders are used, which averages out to $31,456.88 in incremental production revenue per a Dental Tribune report.
Automation Fits Every Practice
As you can see from the above example, using very modest figures from a practice with a single dentist and hygienist, traditional communication strategies are ineffective and expensive. The larger your practice, the greater the burden.
What Patient Communication Methods Should Your Dental Practice Use?
Even still, phone calls and direct mail will always have a place in patient communication, and certainly, some patients prefer these methods. However, a hybrid strategy works best. Below, we’ll break down the various communication channels and when they work best.
Pick up the phone when a patient says it’s their preferred method or a human element or connection is necessary. Because it’s one of the very few HIPAA-compliant patient communication channels (when you’re speaking directly with the patient, not leaving messages), it’s a good way to discuss health information and billing issues too. The obvious drawbacks are that it can be difficult to get a patient on the phone and it’s time-intensive.
Arguably, the most versatile communication method is text messaging. Because patients respond quickly to text messages, it’s a great way to handle reminders and confirmations or get information out quickly. You can use texting to manually schedule appointments and forward patients paperwork digitally or pair it with things like online scheduling portals, so patients can self-appoint, and Pay-by-Text to improve ease-of-use and cash flow. The primary drawback of texting is that it’s not HIPAA-complaint, so you’ll need patients to sign a waiver if you intend to discuss protected information. You may also have a small portion of patients who don’t text yet.
Portals are the unsung heroes of patient communication. Research shows 45% of patients want to be able to use a mobile device to check their health info. Serving as on-demand information centers that are available 24/7, patients can use portals for a variety of things. The Practice-Web Patient Portal, for example, provides secure HIPAA-complaint two-way/ real-time messaging in any browser. Without any add-ons, patients can use it to check balances, confirm appointments, and view prescriptions too. However, practices can make their portals even more valuable by incorporating Pay-by-Text or teledentistry. You could also use your portal to send an online booking link. On the flip side, Patient Portals don’t always work well for things like reminders and confirmations because the patient must opt-in and has to log in to view the message you’ve sent.
A quick glance at the email checklist and it looks like it’s a better bet than text, and it might be where versatility is concerned. You can use it to send reminders and confirmations. It’s also great for building relationships and boosting revenue through marketing campaigns. (You can learn how to create high-performing campaigns in this blog.) However, emails don’t get the same response rate as text messages do and most emails go unopened, so it’s not good for time-sensitive info unless the patient is expecting something from you, like a link to complete paperwork, a statement, or a payment link.
Nearly 80% of the population uses social media per Statista. That makes it an excellent way to increase your reach, build your brand, and develop stronger relationships with your patients. If you’re using an online scheduling tool, you can also add your links to your social media profiles to increase new patient bookings. In these respects, it shines in ways no other patient communication channel does and can help your practice grow, but it’s likely not going to help with any of your regular communication workflows.
You’ll note that there’s no checkmark next to Confirmations and Reminders in the Direct Mail category. Yes, that’s the traditional method, but as we explored earlier, it’s expensive and ineffective. Instead, you’ll want to use direct mail for things like reactivating patients if you haven’t been able to reach them other ways, for sending statements if you’re not digital, and sharing the occasional practice update or marketing. Return on investment for the latter varies greatly, so research before embarking on any campaigns.
New Patient Workflow
Now that we’ve broken down the benefits of automation and where each patient communication method shines, let’s take a look at what an efficient and effective communication workflow looks like for a new patient visit.
You’ll note that there are a few additions here that haven’t already been covered in this article. To adhere to social distancing guidelines, many practices are leveraging virtual waiting rooms and having patients wait in their car. We’ve added a text message here as well, as it’s the fastest way to notify the patient.
You can also replace your appointment cards with a “save the date” text and should be following up visits with a “rate us” text. With pwReviews, our online review service, review requests are automatically sent after an appointment. This system works in two ways to increase reviews and boost new patient appointments.
- Internal Reviews: By design, the system sends patients a review request and the information they share is kept internally. This allows you to take corrective action when there are issues. It can also automatically share four and five-star reviews on your website, so prospective patients can hear what your practice is like and feel more comfortable booking.
- External Reviews: Positive reviewers can also receive a link to review you on an external site, like Facebook, Yelp, or Google. This gives you more control over your online reputation, so you’re sure to make a good first impression. However, you can now also bypass the internal review option and send patients directly to external review sites to increase the number of overall reviews you receive.
Patient Retention Workflow
It’s far more cost-effective to retain patients than it is to attract new ones and remaining with a single provider typically means the patient receives better care overall. However, the communication needs to shift with patient retention. It’s no longer about getting that patient through the door, but building a lasting relationship, strengthening trust, and encouraging recall compliance.
You’ll note that the retention workflow includes a few areas not touched on thus far as well. The e-newsletter, for example, has been added to help develop the patient relationship further. You’ll also see “List.” Unlike traditional paper lists or reports you might print, Practice-Web’s Lists can be used within the program too. They’re interactive. With that in mind, you can easily begin communicating digitally with a single patient or message multiple patients at once, so even if a patient doesn’t respond to their reminders, you can follow up quickly and nobody falls through the cracks. This proactive approach is a paradigm shift for most practices—you’re no longer trying to fill cancellations (although Lists can help with that too!), you’re reaching out to ensure patients receive the care they need.
Better Patient Communication Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
You may be thinking all this sounds great, but the price is going to be too high to make it worthwhile. That might be so if you’re piecemealing things together with third-party apps, but if you’re using Practice-Web and our integrated Smart Tools, it’s surprisingly affordable and you’re likely to get back way more than you invest. Check here for the current pricing, but at the time of publishing, the total combined monthly cost for Support, texting, online scheduling, mass emails, online patient reviews, and pay-by-text is well under $500 and can help you generate or save over $2,000 per month. Plus, each of the Smart Tools mentioned here comes with a free 30-day trial. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll free your staff to focus more on patient care and improve patient satisfaction by enhancing your patient communication strategy.
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