How to ensure patients don’t cancel their dentist appointment

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how to ensure patients don't cancel their dentist appointment
IllustrationS: tarikvision – 123RF

With living costs in Australia rising by the month, you may need to take some measures to ensure cash-strapped patients don’t end up postponing their dental appointment. By John Burfitt

The headlines over the past year have warned a recession is on the way, and given the latest figures regarding inflation and cost of living in Australia, it appears that day has almost arrived. With economic growth expected to slow to 0.7 per cent this year, the National Australia Bank predicts Australia is likely to slip into a recession.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the monthly consumer price index indicator rose 7.4 per cent in the year to January 2023. The Reserve Bank has also lifted home loan rates 10 times over the past 18 months, at the same time consumer spending has slowed.

So as many are forced to tighten their home budget, a trip to the dentist runs the risk of getting crossed out on the financial planner.

According to the ADA’s 2021 Consumer Survey, the latest data on national oral habits revealed only 13 per cent of Australians have visited the dentist in the past 12 months and over a quarter of Australians have not been to the dentist in over five years.

Now is the time for dental practices, advises Perth business coach Craig O’Brien of Balance Coaching, to take a more proactive role in remaining prominent in client considerations.

“At a time like this, you need to go back to basics and understand the demographics of the clients and any possible financial constraints they face,” O’Brien says. “If you don’t have that understanding, you’re going to struggle with anything involving boosting your business.”

O’Brien insists effective communication strategies need to be ramped up, so that not only is the dental practice front of a client’s mind, but it also acts as a reminder of the value of effective oral health.

“Once you have a better understanding of your key base, then you need to work on how you communicate with them,” he says. “This could be through more regular and targeted messaging on social media platforms and direct engagement through emails, newsletters and SMS reminders, as well as mailing pamphlets. 

You need to go back to basics and understand the demographics of the clients and any possible financial constraints they face. If you don’t have that understanding, you’re going to struggle with anything involving boosting your business.

Craig O’Brien, Balance Coaching

“It’s all about building trust and letting that trust become a magnet so clients remember the importance of booking in a dental visit.”

Many dentists are reporting that some of their patients have confided that while they understand the importance of regular dental visits, the rising cost of living means buying groceries and paying mortgages takes precedence over forking out for a dental appointment.

Dr Chris Sanzaro, a member of the ADA Constitution and Policy Committee, says there is an opportunity here for dental professionals to have an honest discussion about the patient’s present financial capabilities.

“It’s far more important to have them discuss what’s achievable and commit to stabilising disease and doing some preventive work and potentially deferring some work that can hold, rather than presenting the ‘ideal’ treatment plan and having it rejected,” he says.

Dr Sanzaro adds clear messaging can explain the importance of early diagnosis and taking preventative measures instead of delaying treatment, which can possibly cost far more in the long term.

“Working with patients on appropriate treatment choices, taking into account their financial position and ability to achieve and maintain dental work, is an important part of the informed financial consent process.”

Now should also be the time for a close examination of the rates being charged by the practice, especially compared to what others in the same market are charging, Ark Total Wealth financial adviser Chris Magnus says.

“When all costs in a budget are being scrutinised, you need to know if your fees are comparable to what others are charging, or if you need to make some adjustments,” Magnus says. The ADA’s 2022 Member Fee Survey revealed that dental fees have only risen 3.7 per cent in two years.

Working with patients on appropriate treatment choices, taking into account their financial position and ability to achieve and maintain dental work, is an important part of the informed financial consent process.

Dr Chris Sanzaro, member, ADA Constitution and Policy Committee

Having access to financial services, like Afterpay or payment plans, can offer a range of affordable options, and also make discussions about fees for services easier.

“This is a time to be flexible with clients and offering a range of options might make balancing a client’s budget a little easier,” Magnus adds. “It’s also a time to just be upfront about this issue, as some people might feel embarrassed that possibly they can’t afford it. Making it a proactive conversation with lots of options can make it easier for everybody.

“Clients are also smarter when it comes to money, and they expect a range of options. So when the cost of a dental visit is split into payments over a number of months, it can become far more digestible than a big lump sum. And not only can it smooth the process, but it can help the practice from a cashflow perspective as well.”

Beyond better payment plans, improved marketing efforts and effective client messaging, Craig O’Brien believes close attention must be paid to the service being provided in tight financial times. 

“A practice owner needs to have an idea of what makes clients come to their practice, what makes it unique and what keeps them coming back,” he says.

“Knowing that—this can be as simple as asking directly or following up a visit with a survey—will give you clarity about what you are doing right and what’s missing. It will also allow you to align your offerings to where your key business is.”

Offering special limited time deals, such as a free cleaning for a child with every adult booking, might prove to be a strong value-added proposition.

“Taking action like this can make patients feel like their loyalty is earning them extra value, and they feel cared for and appreciated,” he says. “Any special offer has to be realistic within the workflow of the practice and include clear messaging it is for a limited time—but the impact on retention can be significant. It might also have them making their next booking before walking out the door.”  

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