Now dentists are challenged to grow their patient volumes back to at least near prepandemic levels. Patient volume remains stuck at 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels and likely will stay that way for the next several months, according to data released on January 28 during an ADA Health Policy Institute (HPI) webinar.
"Many dental practices are not back up to where they need to be in terms of new patient numbers," Xana Winans, CEO and founder of dental marketing firm Golden Proportions Marketing, told DrBicuspid.com. "And it's because dentists are currently stuck in a highly reactionary mindset. It's very common when dealing with a high-stress situation like COVID-19."
Need for strategic planning
When dentists graduate from dental school, they've been taught how to be dentists but not how to run a business. As a result, dentists are constantly scrambling to keep up with new technology, clinical initiatives, team management, and financials, Winans said.
After the pandemic, many dentists are currently only thinking about filling their schedule week to week, she added. By making sure their team stays employed, dentists have stopped looking toward the future.
"Dentists can get caught in this cycle that they literally can't break out of," she said. "Instead, they need a marketing plan so that they can stop being reactionary and start being strategic about how to grow their practices back to prepandemic levels."
Dentists usually don't have a local social network to join to talk about their business, according to Winans. Instead, they go online and get involved in a group sponsored by a dental guru, who has an agenda or product to sell.
"Unfortunately, dentists are often attracted to what they think is a one-hit-wonder solution," she said. "With so many demands on their time it's understandable, but it means they don't take the time to step back and strategically plan for their future."
When coming up with a strategy to get patients back into dentists' offices, Grace Rizza, founder and CEO of Identity Dental Marketing, believes it's important to start with a marketing planning session. During this session, dentists can evaluate a practice's new patient flow, its goals, and the type of new patients that the practice would like to see.
"I'll ask how many new patients they're currently seeing per month, and how many they'd like to be seeing," she told DrBicuspid.com. "Then we assess what's working already for them, where those new patients are coming from, and what they are investing to get those new patients."
Build an online presence
To help improve new patient volumes, dentists should think of their practice as a business. They have to identify goals for their growth and explore their opportunities, weaknesses, and strengths against the competition.
Brand awareness is extremely important, Winans said, as it makes patients aware of a dentist's expertise or specialty. Speaking to local organizations about a practice's capabilities or participating in local social activities when possible, given current social distancing requirements, will also help establish brand awareness.
Winans also advocated for having a website that has been optimized for search engines. The website should convey the practice's personality, use custom patient photography, include short biographies of the team, and offer an online office tour.
"When it comes to converting leads into patient visits, we will recommend technology that can help," Winans said. "For example, if we identify that the front desk is understaffed and new patient calls are missed, we may recommend that the practice invest in a technological solution, such as online scheduling."
Online presence is also very important for Rizza, who wants to see how easy or not it is for a new patient to find a practice. Developing a website with little jargon that patients can relate to is very important, according to Rizza.
"Doctors don't realize that a patient doesn't read their website like a book cover to cover," she said. "They've got to reiterate their selling points in different ways throughout the website so that every page contains the practice's unique selling proposition -- who they are and what they stand for."
To attract prospective patients, dental practices can emphasize certain selling points, such as how they might be trustworthy as a family business or a long-standing office team that has been together for many years. Or a practice can discuss how it has invested in new technology that benefits the patient, Rizza explained.
Like Winans and Rizza, Michael Ventriello, owner of Ventriello Communications, which specializes in dental industry marketing and public relations, advocated for a good web presence that includes pictures of patients after their procedure and a virtual tour. But he also suggested posting testimonials and any new technology the practice has invested in to keep patients safe, such as teledentistry.
"It's important to show friendly faces and get dentists out from behind their masks," he noted.
Communicate patient safety and new technology
To help retain patients, dentists and their teams must provide a personal, friendly, and caring experience to patients when they visit for the first time, Winans said. Getting current patients back into the office for an overdue recall visit since the start of the pandemic may require a personal touch -- phone calls or personalized emails from the dentist or hygienist, which would include descriptions of safety and sanitation procedures and equipment in place to address COVID-19 concerns, she noted.
One way to accomplish this task is to look into investing in technology options, which range from patient portals to automation. But Rizza cautioned against becoming so overly automated that a practice loses a personal connection with patients.
"There is a sweet spot where you can leverage automation and technology to make you more efficient, and you don't necessarily lose that connection point," Rizza added.
That sweet spot could include dentist follow-ups with patients after they've had a procedure -- either with a brief phone call or an email video that asks how they are doing, if they have any concerns, and how they can contact the office.
Rizza echoed that sentiment, suggesting arming the front office with communication that will encourage patients to feel safe.
"A lot of times dentists will direct office staff to phone and schedule patients, but there's no actual guidance on how to host that conversation," she said. "Patients could be told, for example, that the whole team has been vaccinated, and it's safe to return."
Ventriello recommended explaining specifically to patients what their office experience will be like. For instance, tell new and existing patients about any new equipment a practice has invested in to keep patients safe, such as saliva evacuation units and air purification systems.
Ventriello also recommended segmenting outreach based on patient demographics. A phone call might be better suited for older patients, although some tech-savvy elders might have good computing skills, he said. Dentists can also consider reaching patients through Facebook Live, webinars, and social media.
"Try to reactivate current patients that you have a relationship with," Ventriello said. "Maybe they've postponed a treatment plan. Tell them, 'We're here; we're safe.' "
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