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Don’t Let the Curve Flatten Your Practice

Don’t Let the Curve Flatten Your Practice: Strategies to emerge stronger from COVID-19 shutdowns 


Since the start of the pandemic, grocery workers, food and parcel delivery drivers, even sanitation workers have been lauded as essential. Dentists, not so much.

Even though Dental health is essential, most state and local health departments in severely affected regions decided to shut down medical practices.

According to a July 2020 survey by the Larry A. Green Center, many physicians report significant lingering issues: 

“Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of US primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations. While 13% are adapting to a “new normal,”  nearly 9 in 10 practices continue to report significant difficulties whether through obtaining medical supplies, rising health needs among patients, or limited resource support.

For dentists, navigating the art of the comeback is a monumental professional challenge. Recently we had the pleasure of hosting a webinar with Rosemary Mieses-Reyes, the President at Excellence Placement & Management. 

In this blog post, we share strategies she’s implementing with clients to help dental practices weather the COVID crisis and emerge stronger and more efficient. 

Four Engines of the Pandemic

gears

COVID-related shutdowns allowed many practice owners lots of “free time” to think about their business.

Mieses-Reyes advises her clients to focus on the four ‘engines’ of dental practice management: production, collections, training, and (operational) efficiencies.
Increasing production (gross, top-line revenue) starts with growing your patient book. During these critical next six months, you must increase your marketing efforts to overcome patient fears and general economic decline. 

There are two ways to kickstart this: patient engagement and community engagement.

For patient engagement, Mieses-Reyes recommends using specialized software for patient-to-patient referrals (like SRL Group’s ReferralVoodoo.com) to recruit patients in the process of finding more new patients.  A robust social media presence is essential (such as claiming and actively posting content to your Facebook Business page), as is a claimed & up-to-date Google My Business page.

In an era driven by online presence, reviews can be the deciding factor for patients. Even during a pandemic, there are appropriate ways to request reviews and referrals from all patients. 

Yes, it is appropriate to ask a patient to leave a review during a global pandemic. 

The context is crucial.  Instead of asking a patient “for a review” (yuck…marketing), instead, train your staff to ask for feedback.

Staff: “How was your visit today? Was there anything more we can do to make your appointment pleasurable. How did you feel about the safety precautions we took?”

Patient:“Everything was wonderful!”

Staff: “Great. A lot of patients are still quite nervous about visiting the dentist. Would you mind leaving us feedback about your experience? It will help a lot more patients like yourself  have the courage to return to the dentist.”

Notice the ju-jitsu? Instead of a marketing-driven, self-interested ask, your staff has complimented your patient’s bravery and converted them to a social cause!

Reviews provide essential third-party validation and social proof. Yes, you can post your COVID-19 reopening policies, but they are frankly more believable when real patients say real things about their comfort level.

Aside from reviews, social media channels provide free exposure that your practice needs. Use social media to share before-and-after photos, team photos, patient testimonials, and oral and systemic health information. Be creative: one of Mieses-Reyes’ clients made a video of a new aerosol collection device. Let social be one vehicle to educate patients and hold information people want to share.

At the same time don’t neglect offline (i.e., the real world). Remember to work with your local network and community contacts. Seek and actively participate in Zoom meetings of local, religious and, community groups. Be a trusted source of medical information to your community. Help decipher conflicting or bad information. Advise other businesses who are wrestling with health-related issues (such as Covid-19 prevention). If you have a decent PPE connection, share it with a struggling local business.

Emerging stronger means being remembered as the calm, trusted voice during a period of fear and uncertainty.

Reopening? Get a white paper with 25 post-COVID recovery tips for your practice.

Training the Elephants in the Room

dont panic sign on peg board

Let’s face it: the elephant in the room these days is fear. Patients fear to visit the dentist. Staff concerns treating asymptomatic patients. Practice owners fear all of the above + the financial burdens imposed by the unknown duration of this pandemic.

Half the battle of emerging stronger is recognizing and easing these concerns with education and infection control.  Patients won’t return until they feel safe. Staff won’t be welcoming and comfortable until they think the office is a safe place to work. 

Mieses-Reyes stresses this lesson to all her clients: take the time to train your staff about infection control thoroughly. Carefully review state and CDC guidelines for medical professionals. Emphasize training and discipline—even simple things like how to remove gloves and facemasks correctly.

Having strong discipline and routine helps build confidence and a sense of control when facing life-threatening situations. It works the same way for other front-line workers: police, firefighters, and soldiers. 

The other elephant you need to address is staff behaviors. Use this crisis to refocus your staff to be more attentive to patients’ needs and improved office processes. The coming months will likely be difficult for dental practices as the economy rebuilds. You simply can’t afford the drag on revenues from poor staff performance.

First, front desk people (and receptionists) need to have a scripted process to handle patients’ phone calls. According to PatientNews.com, top-performing dental offices answer 95% of inbound calls and convert 75% of those to at least one appointment.

To track staff performance, consider adding a call tracking service. This will enable you to record inbound calls for playback where you can coach staff performance. Enforce the discipline of proper phone etiquette and salesmanship with a once-per-week, listen-and-learn session where objectively score call playbacks based on staff adherence to the script.

Next, train hygienists to be good listeners to identify patient wants and needs. Understanding patient motivations can be a powerful tool that helps improve case-acceptance rates. Mieses-Reyes also recommends training your staff to create medical necessity by using technology like intraoral cameras. Let patients experience periodontal disease close up!  

Helping patients to understand x-rays or talking about systemic health during routine blood pressure emphasizes the doctor’s desire to see patients healthy and at their best. Train the clinic floor to engage with patients and build patient retention to obtain the yes(case acceptance) before the chair. 

Train staff to recognize important triggers that can lead to opportunities. When patients ask about treatment and payment options, it’s usually a “buy” signal that indicates the patient’s already decided to proceed.

Doing More, With Less

computer screen

The most important engine for the practice is operational efficiencies. And, ironically, COVID is a powerful catalyst for change.

You see, COVID has focused on patients’ attention on contactless interactions. In these “trying times,” TV commercials boast everything from contactless pizza and car delivery. Patients are rightly asking: “why do I need to visit a germ-infested waiting room, touch a germ-infested clipboard, and fill out a germ-infested paper patient registration form.”

Bingo!

Online appointments. Online patient registration. Online payments. Telehealth. All poised to transform your practice. And, coincidently, just what the doctor ordered in terms of contactless interaction.

Now is the time to transform your practice. 

No more excuses for not being proficient with online business tools: use online appointments, communications, payments, even e-scripts. These provide dual benefits: it will reduce patient-to-staff physical contact and boost your operational efficiencies.

In fact, during Covid-19, one of Mieses-Reyes’s clients improved profitability. Even though office hours were cut by 25%, the client achieved an 18.7% improvement in profitability by staff reductions made possible by increased use of technology.
“The staff time spent on tedious, low-value work was astonishing: making reminder calls, retyping forms, manually submitting claims,” said Mieses-Reyes. “COVID forced my client to rethink everything. Contactless interactions were a double bonus for patients.”

Look at online booking solutions (like Booked.MD from SRL Group). Investigate integrations from your dental EHR so you can handle new patient registrations and medical forms.
Patient communications was another victim of the COVD pandemic. At the start, many practices were incapable of sending mass emails or text messages to patients, either because they lacked the infrastructure, or patient information was not up-to-date.

Part of operational efficiency is focusing on basics: during this pandemic, staff should be engaged in making outreach calls.

Ostensibly the purpose of the call should be to alert the patient about your post-COVID office hours and policies. Since many patients are justifiably nervous about returning to your practice, it makes sense to do pro-active, outbound wellness calls.  Calls can be an information/courtesy call announcing the practice is open for business and to review new office policies for infection control. Make a courtesy call to just find out how they are- before talking shop.”

However, you should also use the call to check and confirm the patient’s records.

 But this outreach can also stimulate ancillary appointments just by making a connection – good, ole-fashion recall.

 If you have telehealth capabilities, you can capture revenue by providing care to a patient that may otherwise have avoided coming to the office. Many patients and caregivers use telehealth as a triage strategy to keep waiting rooms clear.

Emerge Stronger

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a harsh reality for dentists. In times of crisis, you must adapt to survive.  Now is the chance to focus on fixing operational, financial, and staff issues that have been holding back your progress and profitability. 

The largest hurdle to overcome is fear. It prevents patients from returning to much-needed care. It fills your staff with anxiety about returning to work. 

To survive the aftermath of this pandemic, your best weapon is to proceed with purpose.  Focus on staff training and discipline, first on proper infection control and PPE use. This reduces staff anxiety and establishes control. Implement contactless, online technologies as soon as practical. 

Next, communicate those same policies and procedures to your patients. Re-establish connections. Answer questions. Inspire confidence. Recruit those returning patients in a campaign to reduce fear. Ask for COVID-19 specific reviews that emphasize their experience. 

The road ahead may seem long, but with these strategies, your practice can use it to thrive and change for the better. 

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