Effective dental office management has changed and now practices must adapt to operate in new ways to meet the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Getting patients to schedule appointments and stay on their hygiene schedule no longer just requires frequent reminders and consistent notifications. Now, dentists need to convince patients that getting back into the dental chair no longer presents a risk to their health.
Even though multiple studies have found that visiting the dentist doesn’t increase a patient’s risk for contracting COVID, many people continue to avoid the dental chair out of concern for their health. While nearly 99 percent of dental practices have reopened nationwide since shutting down in early 2020, the number of patients dentists are seeing remains below pre pandemic levels. Industry wide, dentists have reported that only 80 percent of patients have returned for either preventative or elective procedures.
The way many patients balance risk when it comes to treating their oral health begs an important question that now defines dental office management – how can dentists get patients back into the dental chair?
Allaying patient fears largely depends on establishing clear lines of communication about why they shouldn’t feel at risk of contracting the virus. Even though the number of people getting vaccinated continues to rise, notable breakthrough cases – such as in professional sports and entertainment – still creates the specter of doubt in the minds of many.
To overcome these doubts, dentists need to take a two prong attack. They need to convince patients that receiving dental care poses no risk to their health while also stressing that the opposite is also true by highlighting the risks associated with not receiving dental care.
Communicate to Patients That Their Health Remains Your Top Priority
Before a reluctant patient will agree to come back, you need to convince them that their health remains your top priority. This message needs to permeate all of the different ways you communicate with patients. From the language on your website and what your staff says to patients when booking appointments to considering teledentistry and other remote treatment options, your message must be consistent.
Some patients simply fear the unknown and not knowing what to expect upon returning may present too large an obstacle for them to overcome. As mask guidelines continue to change and social distancing for vaccinated people becomes less necessary, patients face real uncertainty and potential confusion you need to clearly address.
The first step is to decide as a practice what safety measures you’ll continue to keep in place. Some businesses have fully embraced the CDC’s new stance on wearing a mask, while others continue to take a more cautious approach. As a local dentist, you know your patients and what they feel comfortable with. As a medical doctor, you know the risks and what steps should be taken to keep everyone safe. You need to blend these approaches to create a responsible policy for how your patients and staff will interact in the office.
Once you’ve created a policy, you need to consistently follow through and educate patients on what to expect. A nervous patient that arrives for their appointment to find a full waiting room where not everyone is wearing a mask won’t have their fears allayed and may decide a cleaning isn’t worth the trouble. A vaccinated patient that arrives not realizing they still need to wear a mask may feel angered or frustrated when told they’re violating a rule they didn’t know was still in place. Whatever policy you implement needs to be clearly explained to patients so you can address any confusion and concern before their appointment.
If your practice can’t consistently implement and follow a policy, how can you convince a patient that their health and safety remains your top priority?
Communicate the Risk That Comes with Avoiding Dental Care
In addition to communicating how you’re protecting patient health and why it’s safe to return, you also need to educate patients about what impact avoiding dental care can have on their long-term oral and overall health.
As a dentist, you know the important role preventative dental care plays in helping a patient maintain a healthy smile. You also know the overwhelming amount of research that shows clear connections between a patient’s oral health and their risk for systemic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, stroke, and cancer. However, many of your patients don’t.
Many patients simply assume that if they avoid visiting the dentist for a few years they may develop a few cavities, at worst. While certainly a possibility, patients don’t realize what years of untreated gum disease may do to their oral health or what it could mean for their overall health. Improved patient education is key to getting them back into the dental chair.
Improved Communication is the Key for Dental Practice Management
The primary object when communicating should always be to empower the community and your patients. It’s vital that patients know what to expect when returning to your office, as well what steps you’ve implemented to better protect the health of everyone involved.
Additionally, by better educating patients on the risks associated with avoiding dental care, you provide them with a reason why they need to come back. Even if a patient feels apprehension about returning, they’re likely to put that aside if they know their health is at risk. As a dentist, your job is to show patients why dental care matters and that you’re invested in their health and wellbeing. While that’s always been true, it matters more now than ever.