This too shall pass

Dental business coach Alun Rees offers advice for practices on managing patient expectations post-lockdown

THE phrase “This too shall pass” has been attributed to many poets and seers, it occurs in Jewish folklore and was notably used by Abraham Lincoln in a speech before becoming US president.

At some point the lockdown will finish, and dentists and their teams will resume practice and put these months of 2020 behind them. There is a current debate about business protection and what format dentistry will be allowed to take but I want to put that to one side and explore how best to manage patients and their needs, wants and expectations.

Hopefully during the down time, practices will have kept in touch with patients via email and social media to update and reassure them. Telephone triaging has helped to comfort many who might have panicked and has also helped to show practices and the profession in a good light.

Never waste a crisis. This restart is an opportunity but not without challenges. Patients have endured and continue to endure insecurity and worry about their present and future.

My advice is to ensure that before you see a single patient, everyone on the team is clear on how they will behave, what they will say, and above all that they will focus on their listening skills. Take the opportunity to get every team member together to anticipate the problems and how you will deal with them. I predict that for the first three months after the lockdown it will feel as if your feet do not touch the floor and there will be a drift towards chaos unless plans are made. During this period, morning huddles, regular staff meetings and conversations are vital no matter how busy everyone becomes. Communication will be absolutely vital, both with our patients and with each other.

Prioritising patients – this is where our knowledge and understanding of patients comes to the fore. It is a fact of life that sometimes those who shout loudest get most attention. We have all seen the stoical patient with an irreversible pulpitis who didn’t like to make a fuss, make way for someone more “persuasive” with a chipped anterior composite. This would be a good time to have one experienced team member dedicated to answering and filtering incoming calls. They can take personal details and a history to assess and appoint the patient, or if necessary promise to return the call at a set time. If required, dentists will need to speak to the patient on the phone or even via one of the face-to-face media with which we are all now familiar. It is vital that you keep your promises and do not drop the baton.

The ongoing frustrations and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may now lead to patients being less tolerant and more prepared to complain about any element of care.

For some, priorities may have changed. Patients who were mid-treatment before the crisis will want to continue without further delay. Some will face financial problems and may want to put treatment on hold until their finances improve. Others may have had a change in perspective and what was important in January will appear less so in July. It is important that we exercise empathy and respect our patients’ wishes.

All dental businesses and individuals will have been damaged financially during the months of shutdown and will be keen to improve cashflow. Now is the time to encourage patients to pay at the start of treatment or to stage payments so that income can improve in the short term. This will require sensitivity, the right language and good antennae to sense if your patient has similar money worries. If that is the case, ensure that there are opportunities for them to spread cost or even to defer treatment. It has to be a win/ win or there is a risk of losing the patient forever.

Time management is both an art and a science that balances patient demand and expectations, income and pressure on the clinician. Post-lockdown the ability to be agile and flexible will be essential by incorporating “rocks, stones and sand” into your schedule. Rocks are longer appointments, for example root canal treatments or multiple tooth treatment. Stones are appointments for “medium” restorations or extractions, whilst sand describes recall examinations, reviews and brief assessments. Many practices allow their book to “just happen”; some still use the mantra “fill the book”. This is a time to take control and not let the diary tail wag the dental dog.

In the coming months it will be essential to show flexibility. That will mean reserving more time every day for emergencies and assessments, plus being able to open up longer visits a couple of days ahead. Extended opening hours where appropriate will help catch up on longer treatments, deal with demand and provide much needed income. Communication and clarity will lead to control.

Alun K Rees is an experienced dental practice owner who works as a coach, consultant, troubleshooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. Find out more at www.dentalbusinesscoach.co.uk

Advice & Support

For advice and support in a potential claim or other matter, please login to your account and complete the contact form.