Our profession is morphing before our very eyes yet we are often too busy to notice the change taking place just outside the front door. As often as we press the refresh button on our computer, we should clean and refresh the lens we look through to examine our practice. By doing this exercise of assessment on a regular basis, we protect ourselves from drifting into a practice of the past instead of one progressing into the future. Let's be honest, the complexity of establishing a practice or taking on an associate - who has extremely limited technical skills and experience, while carrying the burden of student debt in the $200,000 to $300,000 range - makes it challenging at best for everyone. Many young graduates who return and visit with me discuss the struggles they face with their debt and the limitations they confront - with dental skills and career choices. The corporate model has focused on young dentists and has become increasingly appealing to this population as they multiply across the country. How do we respond to this rapidly changing world where the half-life of knowledge becomes shorter and shorter?
A few recent changes further illustrate our need to refresh our screen; iPhone 7, cars without drivers, scanning in place of dental impressions?
An approach I use with students and recent graduates is to continue learning and become a life-long learner and student. We often establish fixed behavior patterns as time moves on and we become more and more comfortable. Although the
Experience garnered through time is invaluable, an open mind with the desire to grow and achieve is a crucial part of progressing into the future.
Develop a fresh outlook
Think of yourself as a toddler who just started learning to walk. In the wide eyes of a child this fresh view of the world is perceived as the start of a new journey, a journey of endless possibilities as they embrace each opportunity to fully explore. With renewed vigor and the unsurpassed eagerness each new discovery holds, the toddlers' quest is almost unstoppable.
As you enter your new world, forget preconceived ideas about what ‘should be’ versus the reality you see in front of you. As our industry evolves and our patients along with it - we should be asking ourselves; do we need to make any adjustments or take a look at how external forces are affecting us internally? How do we view our patients, the practice and our overall growth? Is what you’ve been doing all along and what you are comfortable doing enough – are we always searching for opportunities that achieve our goals and provide growth for staff as well as the practice?
The following suggestions may be uncomfortable for some, as different personality types handle each situation differently. Some may feel “things are good, we’re doing fine, don’t rock the boat, why change anything?” Renowned author Jim Collins states, “Good is the enemy of Great” and that “Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” If we choose to stay comfortable and are not willing to risk something different or unusual, we end up settling for the ordinary or worse – mediocracy.
How may I help you?
One of the most endearing opening statements a new patient can hear is, “How may I help you?” (An attitude of serving each other and the patient - must permeate your office. Patients feel it as well as sense it.) This has to be the attitude of everyone and must come from the receptionist as soon as the patient walks through the door, the hygienist greeting the patient as she is seated in her chair and the doctor as he works with patients and staff.
By the end of the appointment we should know our patients well enough to know what they value. With that knowledge, presenting a treatment plan in a language they understand and in terms of what they value most. It provides clarity for them and the ability to make a decision to move forward. Fifty percent of dentistry is related to the treatment of disease while the other fifty percent is related to treatment that is elective. (What’s important to the patient and what outcome do they want?) The staff member and doctor should be able to answer that question after the first appointment.
Two words that all ages value and understand are: preserve and prevent. “We would like to preserve your existing teeth and the oral health that provides structure for; your smile, how you eat, and at the same time be free of pain.” In addition, we want to “prevent any future problems that can cause other issues and create more expense” - preserve and prevent becomes your mantra. Get ownership from the patient “is that what you are interested in and what you would like to do?” Preserve and prevent.
Practice how you communicate a patients’ needs. Everyone processes information differently. If you have not communicated with terms that a patient understands and with consideration to what they value, the patient will not feel confident enough to move forward. People will spend their hard earned money and invest precious time – one what they VALUE. Your goal as a leader is to develop and influence people to make healthy choices that will benefit the quality of their life. This will be a lifelong art and a skill that continues to develop. Without this level of understanding and how important that communication is to the patient, a practice becomes extremely limited with little or no potential for growth.
Some weekend and holiday emergency patients were some of my greatest raving fans. These visits can garner greater benefits to your practice than a paid TV commercial or newsprint advertisement. Making yourself available (even when it may not be convenient for you) is a key factor in growing your practice. A good principle to remember that aligns with “how may I help you?” – it’s not about you, it’s about the patient.
Many of the things I am discussing focus on engaging the patient. If you do not engage the patient, they probably won’t come back and if they do, they will not be part of your referral base. Engaging the patient and staff members to be loyal to you and your practice starts with the heart. This is a very difficult concept for many physicians and dentists to comprehend.
The heart is where trust begins. If you do not create an environment of trust for patients so they will trust in your practice, the road ahead will be difficult at best.
Once engagement has been established continues throughout the oral exam, a discussion about how you can help the patient achieve their goals, their desired needs and wants, is appropriate if a solid foundation of trust has been established. With that base of trust, you and the patient can be confident discussing treatment plans and what works best relative to their goals. Available options may need creative solutions and provide a comfort level for a patient to make the decision to move forward. This provides accountability for the services the patient will receive, and clearly illustrates its value in terms of the investment in their oral health.
Talking about the cost of a procedure or money without connecting it to patient value and oral health is prohibited – at all times. The value one obtains through oral health and preserving their teeth should be reinforced throughout their visits. We often forget we are in competition for limited dollars as the market becomes more crowded, more competitive, and we don’t have a Madison Avenue marketing budget to advertise what we do. Your team must be masters at communicating honest value in terms of patient needs. If your office staff is not excited or believe in what you do and how you do it, your patient care will have limited success.
In today’s dental market, the doctor cannot hide behind the facemask or work quietly behind the scenes. Extravert, introvert, whatever-vert, you must introduce yourself to the community. Not very many people are going to come to you and welcome the ‘new guy’ on the block. Identify twenty pharmacies, doc in the box, ER’s, and child care centers in your area. Develop a letter of introduction about you and the staff and perhaps a professional courtesy with your business card. Conversations at child development centers should also take place: “Good morning, is the director available, my name is Dr. Joe.” (The night before after you’ve looked at the website and read a little about the director, offer a compliment. “Hi Ms. Jones, I saw what a great facility you have here and wanted to let you know that I’ve just opened my practice about two miles from your center. I’ve also had training with dental accidents and dental emergencies. If you ever have a need, we certainly will do our best to see your children immediately whenever possible. I am also available for short education programs for children or parents. If your staff ever has any problems tell them to feel free to call me.” Sometimes if you have complimented them on their beautiful facility they may offer a tour or you may say “may I have a few brochures in case I have patients in need of childcare?” If they offer a tour they often will introduce you to staff at which time you can give them your card. These kinds of conversations must be done with discernment and a genuinely warm, caring attitude. Not like a pushy used car salesman. The greatest thing you must understand about private practice/public setting; in your years of school you were evaluated on your skills, in the public you are evaluated on your leadership abilities and most importantly your relationship skills.
I find these visits will not occur regularly if you do not have a deliberate plan that is marked on your calendar. (By the inch it’s a cinch by the yard it’s hard.)
Become a maniac at acknowledging people. Hand-written thank you notes, follow-up phone calls, deaths, weddings, births all make an impact, are remembered, and imprinted in people’s brains. This has to be genuine! If you don’t give a rip about people, patients, or care about their needs they see right through it! And quite frankly if that’s the case, you may want to rethink career options!
Try to find something to express appreciation and gratitude to your patient (“and by the way if you have any friends that need a dentist, please give them my card. I also have had additional years of training and have experience handling emergencies and difficult or complex dental situations and availability after hours.)
Appreciation is the fuel that energizes staff. When used properly it also allows you to address situations that did not work well or you don’t want continued.
Remind yourself that people came to you for your expertise in your field. Give them recommendations you think is in their best interest, and have a conversation about how you can make this happen for them. YOUR enthusiasm for the patient, their care, and your profession will be the barometer for your staff. Whatever it takes, wherever you are and whenever you can; show an external excitement about each day, throughout the day. Start the day with enthusiasm and excitement as soon as you arrive at the office with a cheerful greeting, and as you leave in the evening a grateful departure and “Thank you” for their work, with genuine enthusiasm about tomorrow.
All of these things will contribute to a healthy atmosphere and a growing practice. Beyond these tips are many organizational details that must be in place, understood by all staff members, with everyone working as a cohesive team. But that’s for another day. In the meantime,
“The future depends on what you do today.” – Mahatma Gandhi