Better Dental Patient Care Goes Beyond Treating Symptoms

How often have you felt like your dental practice is becoming a “repair shop?”

It’s been a growing concern for us and for many dental practices—when we see our patients, it’s often already too late. Due to a variety of reasons, patients are skipping regular treatment and only coming in when a problem becomes acute.

Nationwide, we’re seeing case after case highlighting a crisis in dental health. From the death of a child due to an untreated tooth abscess, to the queues of people waiting for hours or even days for charity clinics in Illinois, Virginia, and several other states, it’s clear that more needs to be done to facilitate early dental treatment.

Customer care should be a key focus for any dental practice. It’s why we’re there, but what can we do to really make a difference? For us, the answer is to somehow move beyond “advanced repair shop” status to a long-term focus on good health.

How to create your own “better care” manifesto. Get our guide here!

Feel like you’re offering “fries with that?”

We wrote a book, “Dr. FriesWithThat” (available for download here), that delves into the murky depths of contemporary dental practices:

“Our profession seems to be flying nervously close to the operations of the burger joint. You know what I’m referring to: soulless thing selling, misleading advertising, namelessly shuffling patients in and out of the procedure room as quickly as possible, and a single-minded focus upon the production side of dental care.”

The “quick sale” really isn’t the answer to a sustainable bottom line for your practice, nor is it the answer for the long-term health of patients. The problem is, when dental practices find themselves hurting between high overheads, low reimbursements, and dwindling patient numbers in the chair, those couponing offers and greasy sales techniques can feel like the only answer.

Photo credit: plasticrevolver via Visual Hunt

The “quick sale” really isn’t the answer for your practice or your patients. Click To Tweet

In our Illinois practices, we suddenly encountered a very rough patch when we lost one-third of our revenue, virtually overnight. We had to move quickly to recover, but we also wanted to take a considered approach.

Couponing offers just to get more patients in the door? Been there, seen that, and we just don’t like the “greasiness” of it. For one thing, it reduces your services to a “shop around” commodity. Patients might buy, but only because they want to get that one thing at a cheap price. They might have a mouthful of cavities, but they’re going to keep shopping around and going from one short-term fix to the next.

Why? For starters, these are often patients from underserved groups who simply can’t afford the full costs of dental care. They’re rightly wary when they come in because they’ve had the “salesperson” treatment before and it always lead to pressure to purchase procedures that they couldn’t see any way to afford. They know they need help, but they’re worried about a lack of transparency with dental pricing. A coupon sounds like a nice “quick fix” so that they’re at least doing something, but the reality is that they need more than that short-term solution.

The “Problem-Solution” Discrepancy

There is definitely an emerging “problem-solution” discrepancy. We know that dental disease is chronic in nature, yet fewer American adults are visiting their dentist on any kind of regular basis, citing those issues with cost and transparency. If your patients don’t have insurance or are hamstrung by low yearly maximums and high premiums, they find themselves in a difficult situation.

Thankfully, we’re starting to see more of an overall acknowledgement that dental care can be at the root of good health, with a number of journalists from large publications helping to bring awareness to the issue:

“…there’s a growing realization that good oral health is far more than a cosmetic concern. Tooth and gum infections are associated with heart disease, depression, speaking disorders and other maladies.” – Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune.

The question is, how do we bridge the gap? How do we take better care of our patients beyond simply treating symptoms?

A Key to Better Patient Care

If there is one overarching theme that we see as vital to better dental patient care, it’s that we need to move from that “repair shop” status to a mutual bias toward good health.

Dentists are pulled in all sorts of directions, many of which don’t add up to better patient care at all. There’s the stress over student loans and practice overheads, fee suppression from insurance companies, and for some, demands made by corporate managers.

“Addressing student debt and prioritizing patient care should never be placed in opposition to each other.”Bernard J. Larson.

For our part, our decision to provide better care and turn around financial performance in our practices meant focusing on key underserved groups—the uninsured. By building a membership program with a bias toward health for all parties, called Health Assurance, our practice was able to serve these patients more fully. Also, the Health Assurance Plan oriented our team and patients toward a mutually beneficial long-term relationship.

This long-term relationship with patients is key, no matter how they are coming to you. Are treatment plans being made with a truly patient-centered focus? In a Seattle Times piece about prioritizing patient care over corporate dentistry, Bernard Larson says:

“… it is imperative that treatment decisions only be made by a dentist who is acting in the best interest of his or her patients and is not subject to the bottom line of a corporate manager.”

Whether you are a corporate or private practice, the same principle applies; treatment plans should be focused on that long-term mutual bias toward achieving good health rather than any sort of “we must sell more widgets” thinking.

If we want to move beyond simply treating symptoms, we need to take a different approach.

A Case Study From Our Practice

A middle-aged patient had avoided the dentist for years. One day, he tried to go in for a coupon cleaning he received in the mail. Once he was in the chair, however, the dentist seemed overly aggressive and “salesy.” That dentist tried to sell him a bunch of stuff—treatments that seemed far out of reach for him—so he didn’t want to go back.

Years later, when he was complaining about a toothache, his friend who also had no insurance, referred him to us because we offer Health Assurance. When presented with the recommendation of a root canal, the patient was amazed at how much he would save as a member. An important result was that he was motivated to finally get back to health so he didn’t run the risk of future dental pain.

So, not only did our patient buy the membership and the root canal, he automatically came back for the comprehensive exam, cleaning, and x-rays included in his membership. At that appointment, we were able to discover other problems that would lead to more emergencies if left unaddressed. Of course, he was able to have these attended to at member discount prices.

Once we had totally restored the patient’s oral health, he was able to move to our basic support plan and save on his monthly membership payments. Our mutual goal is to assure his health over time as a member of our practice, while meeting him in a place that is financially manageable.

This is how our practices have managed to bridge that “problem-solution” discrepancy.

Create a manifesto for better care in your practice. Get our guide here!

Final Thoughts

Quite simply, better dental patient care goes well beyond treating symptoms and acting as an advanced repair shop. To continue doing so serves neither the practice nor the patient long-term.

It’s time that dental practices found patient-centered solutions to bridge the growing gap between the problems our patients have and the current solutions on offer. For our practices, that was offering a subscription service that is affordable and nurtures a mutual bias toward good health.

How will you move beyond just treating symptoms?

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