The Forgotten Patients
In my experience, most practices have patients fall through the cracks, and an average 55% or less patient retention rate. To determine how well a practice is doing, dentists--and aspiring dentists--need only take a look at patient retention in order to get an accurate account. Are more patients leaving through the back door than coming in through the front?
When I ask dentists how they would like to improve their practices,
a common response is, “I need more patients.” They are usually concerned about
patient flow, but they skip key practice management protocols to keep patients
coming back. These forgotten patients know you, they know your team, they know
where you are located, and they consider you their dentist. It is not unusual
to find another practice hidden in a single practice—for patients in need of a
recall appointment or other treatment that has been diagnosed.
Every practice must know that retaining patients is vital to
practice expansion and viability. Every team member must know that existing
patients are the most important part of the practice and work on adding value
to visits and building stronger relationships with these patients. My
experience has been that the longer the patient stays away, the less likely it
is that they will return to your practice. Many are already embarrassed about
their mouths. The more time goes by, the more embarrassed they become about returning
for care, so they go somewhere else.
There are three common ways patients can fall through the cracks:
- Lack of a solid
recall and reactivation system
Most practices believe they have a recall system that is working. It is rare
that I find this to be the case. You need to have a written plan that states who is responsible for what, and that the appointed employee
has an exact schedule for reminder cards and emails. This is important so that
staff members can follow the system exactly, month after month. Employees come
and go; you need to have the system established so it can be easily duplicated
by the next person.
Even if you are taking advantage of services such as automatic appointment
reminders, you should be aware of the timelines and templates you have established
so you can follow up with patients. Practices that have these systems in place
continue to grow despite the economy.
- Staff is not
familiar with dental software
If your practice has dental software that assists in patient recall, every team
member must be adequately trained on its use. The knowledge they gain will greatly
benefit the practice. This is an area where you cannot afford to cut corners. Today’s
practice management software allows you to do many things such as help with
scheduling, send automated reminders, and notify your staff of missed
appointments, to help prevent patients from falling through the cracks. You and
the other members of the team need to know how to best take advantage of the
resources you already have.
- Little or no
communication from the practice
It is important that you communicate with current patients by using recall
cards, recall emails, reactivation projects, birthday cards, holiday cards,
etc. Some type of communication is better than none at all. The more you send
out, the more appointments you will get.
Dental teams are constantly looking to fill their schedules and
improve new patient numbers. These actions are important, but each of the above
can help the practitioner to close the back door and retain more patients. When
these patients stay with your practice and are happy, they will refer more
people for dental care.
Most practices are not doing enough on a consistent basis to keep
patients coming back. Often times, patients are inactivated too soon. This is a
huge mistake. They still have teeth, and they still need a dentist. These
patients are either going to see you or go somewhere else. Use automated “continuing
care is due” reminders to keep the communications flowing to them. One of the
most important things you can do to build a practice is to put your attention
on your current patient base.
How Many Patients in Your
Practice are Overdue?
The average practice has 750 to 1,000 patients overdue for recall
appointments. This is largely due to weak or lacking recall and reactivation
systems. Patients get left behind because no one goes back to check on them,
and the practice stops sending cards and letters. Most practices are surprised
to learn how many people need recare, especially when they have open time on
Typically, practices will start thinking about reactivation projects
when they are desperate for patients. To the contrary, reactivation attempts
should be ongoing to achieve a consistent flow of patients rather than borne
out of desperation.
Step 1: Generate and
print a list of patients who have not been in for at least six months, and go
back at least three to five years.
Step 2: Choose a recall
card for mailing to these patients. You may also consider combining this with
emails to the patients. The recall cards and emails should look different from others
you have sent in the past.
Step 3: Customize your
recall email message. Surveys suggest the following message gets the best
response. Dear [insert patient name], we
miss seeing you in our office. As you know, when dental decay, gingivitis,
periodontal disease, or other complications are discovered in early stages,
treatment is not complicated and costs are less. Please phone the office at
[insert your phone number including area code] for a convenient appointment.
Step 4: Send the same
card and/ or email message to the same group of patients two to three months in
Work to implement a patient retention system to help close the back
door and keep more patients. Focusing on patient retention will not only fill
your schedule, it will provide a steady flow of patients, and you’ll have a
much healthier practice.
lecturer, author, and practice management consultant. Ms. Pardue has assisted
hundreds of dentists with practice expansion and staff development over the
past 25 years.