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The Patient Journey

By 10 December, 2019Members

I’ve visited quite a few practices in my time and worked in maybe half a dozen.  Some get it, others don’t.

Get it?  What do you mean get it?

Well, dentistry, believe it or not, isn’t just about teeth.  It’s about the whole patient, and a lot of practices seem to forget that.  Let’s travel through a fictional dental practice to show you what I mean by “not getting it“.  This will be in the eyes of a new patient.

The start of the patient journey begins when the patient first learns about the practice.  This can be via a website, a recommendation from a  friend, or simply driving past one day.  Every one of those aspects forms an impression that will or won’t entice a new patient through your door.

So let’s say you have the patient hooked and they contact the practice.  How do they contact you?  Do they email, phone or walk in through the door to make an enquiry?  Do you have all those possible interactions covered?  Will the patient be impressed by how their enquiry is dealt with?  Was the receptionist a bit short on the phone?  Did they get a reply to their email?  Was there a long queue at reception with a receptionist who seemed harassed?

And what are your criteria for accepting new patients?  Do you know?  Are you accepting anything with a pulse, or do you qualify patients before they can join?

And if you are taking new patients on, how long do they have to wait?  What happens if they start to have problems in that waiting period.  Have you accepted a duty of care already, or do you feel that duty starts only on the day of examination?  Have you even considered that?

Okay, so the patient has made an appointment.  What paperwork do you want?  Medical History, diet sheet, smile questionnaire?  How do you ensure the patient brings these with them?  And how are you going to ensure the patient turns up?  Are you taking a deposit for private patients?  And have you informed the patient exactly how much their first visit will cost?

A lot of questions here I know :)

So the patient has turned up after having booked themselves in.  What is the environment of your waiting room like?  Is it warm and comfortable, or cold in winter with blastic bucket seats?  Are their magazines, and do they stem from the 1980s?  Perhaps you have a fish tank with a floater.  Peeling wallpaper?  Dirty toilet facilities?  Stains on the carpet?

Believe me, I’ve seen some shocking sights.

Then there is the layout of reception.  Can the patients have confidentiality when discussing matters with reception?  But how do you manage this if you want reception staff to engage with the waiting patients?  Some places create a friendly environment by… well being friendly.  And how are you going to manage someone who starts kicking off?  There is an argument that you should filter your patient base to remove such people, but that’s another discussion.

How long is your patient having to wait to see the dentist/treatment coordinator?  Will they be informed if the practice is running late? It is my flawed opinion that most practices don’t deal well with handling that anxious waiting period.  The waiting room just seems to be a place to store patients until the surgery is ready, a bit like planes stacking up to land at Heathrow.  Instead, why not have systems in place to ensure the waiting time is at a minimum.  And what kind of message about the practice is the patient getting by your reception and lounge area?  If you have lots of laminated A4 sheets plastered everywhere that sets a different feel than having your “vital” information professionally framed and mounted.

Coffee anyone?  I’ve been in some practices that feel more like a hotel…a nice, expensive hotel.  Does your “waiting area” scream cheap and nasty or reassuringly expensive?  There are some patients who will notice the blown lightbulb and wonder if you can actually deliver the treatment promised.

Notice that the patient hasn’t even met the dentist yet.  You can fail in the patient journey at every step.  The idea is to keep building the patients confidence to qualify YOU as the dentist and the practice they need to be treated by.

Ah, the dentist is ready and it’s time to collect the patient.  Who’s doing that?  And who is the patient sent to first?  Perhaps you want them to have a chat with the treatment coordinator, to establish more rapport with the practice.  I think if you are a private practice and you don’t have a treatment coordinator (or whatever you want to call them) then you are missing a trick.

Ultimately the patient will need to meet the dentist.  If you are a practice owner, do you just sit back and hope your associate knows what they are doing?  Don’t forget, they are representing YOUR practice.  Surely you have set systems on how the dentist/patient interaction should progress.  Or do you all just wing it?

And so it goes.

Look, what I’m trying to say in my flawed way is that the patient journey is vitally important.  Not just for new patients, but for existing patients also.  The NHS as an organisation is very bad when it comes to the patient journey, but patients seem to accept it because “it’s free innit“.  Grumpy receptionists, uncomfortable seats, lost referrals, harrassed clinicians.  The NHS is a creaking and crumbling institution…so why would you want to stay a part of it?  And if you do go private (assuming you haven’t already), how are you going to distinguish yourself, firstly from the NHS practice that you used to own/work in, but also the other private practices that are trying to attract the same patients.

You cannot compete on price and you shouldn’t even try.  To win this game you have to establish in the patient’s mind that

  • You can be trusted
  • Your practice is clean and well maintained
  • You know what you are doing
  • You will look after their health

There will also be some patients who are mainly interested in the cosmetic aspects of dental care, and as you would imagine, your patient journey for these has to be even more impressive.

So do me a favour.  Why not walk through every step of your existing patient journey and see how it looks.  You might be pleasantly surprised…or you might be horrified. And if you are an associate doing this, and you don’t like what you find…can you influence change in that practice.  or do you need to improve your skills and your communication abilities so you can move to a different practice that perhaps has more respect for the patient?

Oh didn’t I mention that?  If you aren’t giving the patient a comfortable environment, staffed by people who are intent of looking after them at every interaction, with clinicians who do the best they can…then what message are you giving the patient.  Is that new patient a valued and respected individual or are they an inconvenience?