Almost seven years ago, I graduated from dental school and began my hunt for a job as an associate dentist. After working at a number of different clinics and developing fundamental clinical skills, I decided to purchase an established dental practice and so my ownership journey began. As an associate dentist, I was so consumed with perfecting MOs and DOs, completing extractions and root canal treatments in a timely manner, and honing my technical skills that I rarely focused on the psychology of being a dental patient and what it meant to establish dentist-patient trust while building “goodwill”.
Many of you are familiar with the business definition of “goodwill” as: the established reputation of a business regarded as a quantifiable asset. In the dental world this is often defined as the amount of money associated with purchasing the existing patients of a practice. However, once you purchase a practice, you still need to prove yourself so as to retain the patients you have purchased. This process emphasizes the importance of the traditional definition of “goodwill” defined as: friendly, helpful, or cooperative feelings or attitude. Building friendship with, and garnering cooperation from, your patients are your ultimate goal and doing so requires that you earn their trust.
So, as the new owner, how do you earn trust toward building goodwill? Many practice advisers will tell you that the process takes time. I have heard typical estimates of two to four years before the average patient will trust the new dentist. Obviously, this depends on the dentist and it depends on each individual patient to some degree. There are some patients whom you will see more frequently compared to others depending on their hygiene schedule and specific dental needs. Individual dentists also differ in their treatment planning style as well as thresholds for recommending treatment or intervention. Patients differ in how much they need to see from a new person before they can deem them trustworthy. Below, I will discuss strategies for improving your ability to win patient trust and build goodwill through your journey as new practice owner.
Set out to build familiarity quickly
I am not suggesting that you rush what can be a delicate process. If it takes seeing a particular patient eight times to gradually gain their trust, then do not attempt (or expect) to do so after two meetings. However, there is a way by which you can have those eight interactions in a short span of time. You need to take every opportunity to see your patients within the first two years of practice ownership. How can you do this?
Don’t wait for recall exams to interact with your patients
Make it a rule that you will come in and perform an exam at all scheduled cleanings. If you feel that this is too much to do, simply drop in during cleanings to say “hello” and chat with your patient. You manufacture extra interactions this way and you will find that you get to know your patients (and they will get know you) much more quickly. I would also argue that the increased frequency of interaction allows you to gain patient trust with fewer encounters.
Always take the time to chat with parents
When you see a child or teenager for restorative treatment of during a recall exam, take the time to give their parents a recap in the waiting area. The parents will appreciate this extra touch and you will, once again, manufacture an extra interaction with your patient(s). I have two patients who are mother and father to 11 children, all of whom are patients at our office. Within six months of taking ownership at my new practice, I had spoken to both parents on five different occasions! The father remarked that he felt he knew me far better than the previous dentist/owner who had been at the practice for over nine years.
Get in the habit of making courtesy calls
This should be number one on my list. A single, postoperative, courtesy phone call takes 60 seconds to make. From this you gain one more interaction and I would argue that a single care call is worth far more than any number of in-office interactions. The courtesy call sets you apart from most or all of the dentists that your patient has had, and it shows that you genuinely care about their well being. For me, this is an absolute must in building goodwill with patients. I continue to make 10-15 courtesy calls at the end of each week almost five years into practice ownership.
Maximize transparency and your patients will love you for it!
Most dental offices are outfitted with intra-oral cameras and most of these offices advertise that this is part of the technology that they offer their patients. There is therefore a high likelihood that the practice you have purchased comes with one or more intra-oral cameras. One of the most valuable things that I did (and continue to do) in the first years of practice ownership was to take plenty of photos and share them with patients. Adopt the mindset that you need to prove yourself to your patients and set out to meet this challenge. It takes only a week or two to develop the habit and to realize that it adds one to two minutes to each appointment to engage your patients by showing them photos of their teeth and gums. Educate them. Demonstrate to them with visual content how they can be improving their oral hygiene. Demonstrate to them why they need to undertake treatment to remedy a particular issue. When you embrace the challenge of helping your patients see what you see, it demonstrates to them that you are trustworthy and that you have nothing to hide. Consider printing relevant photos and take a moment to make a few short notes including treatment times and costs for your patient. Research shows that treatment plan acceptance goes up significantly when patients have a reference at home to remind them about their options and that some further treatment need be completed.
Get involved with your new community
Some dentists choose to live in the city, town, or even neighbourhood where they practice while others choose to live elsewhere and to commute to work. I have dentist friends in both categories. Those who live locally tend to notice that their patients appreciate this. I live a few neighbourhoods away from where I practice. When I see my patients at the local grocery store or at a minor league hockey game, they love it! Living locally also serves to open up a multitude of avenues for conversation. If you can chat with your patients about local events, you can bond with them readily. You are an “insider”. My friends that commute to the city or town in which they practice tend to notice that it is a more difficult and protracted process to earn patient trust. Patients tend to talk about local news. If you are unaware of local events or have nothing to add to these discussions, you seem like an “outsider”. You can still earn trust and I certainly wouldn’t deem living outside of town to be a deal-breaker, but it makes things more difficult. Whether, you live where you practice or not, as a new practice owner you can benefit tremendously from being seen at community events. Donate to local organizations and charities. Set up a booth at the local fair or multicultural festival. Support minor league sports teams. Discuss these things with your patients. Put up plaques in the office and photos on your website. Let your patient base know that you are committed to the community and they will trust you for that.
There are many factors that govern human thought, analysis and behaviour and so there are many factors that will affect how you are received by any patient. The process of gaining trust toward stimulating friendly, helpful or cooperative feelings (or earning “goodwill”) can take many paths and will take a different amount of time with each patient. If you are committed to enhancing and optimizing this process, I think that you will find the suggestions I have made extremely helpful. My thoughts, ideas and strategies, while basic and unsophisticated, are often overlooked during the stressful transition into new practice ownership. Take some time at the end of every week to evaluate how you did, what worked, and what you might like to try in the weeks ahead. Completing this brief exercise each week allowed me to identify winning strategies for building goodwill and to go forward with tools for keeping my patients happy.
About The Author
Dr. Kyle Hornby (DDS) graduated from the Schulich School of Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario in 2012. He operates a family dental practice, Danube Dental Clinic (www.danubedental.com), in downtown Kitchener, Ontario. He maintains a special interest in practice goodwill, internal retention and referral systems, as well as online marketing, search engine optimization (SEO) and website conversion optimization. He can be reached at email@example.com.