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Why Patients Leave a Dental Practice

Patients leave practices for many reasons. So what typically goes wrong?

Lisa Mergens, a dental practice consultant and owner of Ascendent Dental Development, and Patient Prism’s Director of Content Debbie Bush know about some of the biggest patient turn offs, and they want to share them with you.

“Your front desk person is not nice.”

It’s no secret that your front desk is where patients often get their first impression of your office. Make sure it’s a good one by hiring the right staff and training them

 “One of the things I find is an issue is when patients meet an office that is disorganized and doesn’t stay on message. So it could be a warm, caring dental assistant in the back, but a nasty person up front who’s too busy to be dealing with anything,” Mergens said.

It’s also important to not overload your receptionist with tasks that prevent her from communicating with patients, Mergens explained. 

“People will make a dental practice choice based on the front desk,” she said. 

“They pulled a bait and switch on me.” 

When dentist presents a treatment option, but then decide another, more expensive option is better, the patient may feel like she is upselling them, Mergens said. It’s always best to present the best treatment for the patient, then make adjustments, such as completing the treatment in phases. 

“We have to remind our patients, ‘we are not selling you dentistry, we are presenting to you the best-case scenario, and we will adjust from there. We are not going to give you lesser treatments,’” Mergens said. 

“This other dentist said you gave me the wrong treatment.” 

Legally, dentists are required to make sure a patient’s treatment is planned properly, so don’t guess what a patient may or may not want, Mergens said. When dentists do the right thing for their patients, they also minimize the practice’s legal risks. 

“Also be prepared for the patient who, if something fails, does go to another dentist and then comes back and says ‘you did this treatment on me when you should have been doing that’.” 

It helps to train your team – including your receptionist – to know how to respond to an allegation like that. One answer may be to offer to have the patient return so the dentist can talk to the patient in person. 

“The hygienist was too rough.” 

Sometimes, patients feel they were treated roughly because they have poor health. And sometimes, staff is to blame. Either way, you can minimize problems fairly quickly. 

“Are we calibrating our hygienists?” asked Mergens. “If you’re a single-hygienist practice it’s a little harder to calibrate, but maybe that’s when you bring in a hygienist mentor or hygienist coach. Doctors, don’t be afraid to of hiring these people to come in, if you’re hearing the same information.” 

And when a patient’s complaint seems to be the result of their condition, explain that to them that they may experience a feeling of pressure as the hygienist performs the procedure, so they are prepared ahead of time. Also, it’s a good practice to let them know they should give you a signal, such as raising a hand, when they need a break.

“Your office is dirty.” 

Cleanliness and order goes a long way to helping your patients feel good about your office, Mergens said. 

“Is the office organized?” she said. “I don’t want to be in a dirty place. Clean it up. It’s all (about) the culture of your office.” 

“They charged me more than they said.” 

“Not having your staff up-to-date on what insurance companies are providing in terms of benefits, and overextending a patient without them being aware,” are big no-nos, said Mergens. 

The last thing your patient wants is to pay more than you said it would cost. 

“No, we don't want surprises. That’s what causes frustration and anger in patients,” said Bush. 

“They’re coming after me when I already paid my bill.” 

Dentists should pay particular attention to the problem of embezzlement when patients pay in cash. Putting a solid process in place to account for liquid payments is a must. 

“I know of an office that the person up front, whenever they would collect funds from a person who was paying cash, that cash just kind of disappeared, and then when that person left the practice it was showing all these ledger balances of collectible funds,” said Mergens. “And the  office would be reaching out to these patients with all these past due balances. Well, as it turns out, all these patients came back and said ‘I paid that, I paid cash for that.’ 

“Not one of them had written a check or charged a credit card . . . so this person had been literally embezzling the money to cash.” 

By understanding what other practices have experienced and putting protocols and processes in place, dentists can avoid some of these problems and deliver high-quality customer service and clinical care that will keep their patients coming back year after year.

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