September 1, 2003
by Dental Practice Management
Providing quality dentistry is important. It keeps your patients happy and increases referrals. But, as a business owner, being profitable is as important, because it allows you to pay your team well and invest in your facilities, equipment and future. Believe me, you can make a profit without feeling guilty…and, it’s easier than you think.
The more your patients understand their dental needs and the fees associated with treatment, the more likely they are to accept your recommendations. Most people don’t like surprises, especially when it comes to dental care and costs. That’s why the treatment and fee presentation is critical to the success of your practice.
Effectively communicating treatment
Patients need to know the details about recommended treatment, including the advantages, reasons, and consequences of not completing treatment, before they will make a commitment to proceed. I find that patients often have questions about treatment, but are sometimes hesitant and uncomfortable asking the doctor. This is one of the reasons I recommend having a trained treatment coordinator handle the presentation of treatment and fees. Outside the clinical environment, in a private consultation room, they can review the doctor’s recommendations and costs with the patient and answer questions.
During the presentation it is critical that your treatment coordinator discuss the clinical and financial aspects of treatment with enthusiasm. You can say a lot just with your tone of voice. This person should have a strong knowledge of clinical dentistry and absolutely believe in the quality of dentistry that’s going to be delivered. Plus, they should speak in “layman’s” terms so the patient clearly understands what is being said. The team member presenting should also be actively listening to the patient’s concerns and comments. The goal of the practice is to make it as comfortable as possible for the patient to have the very best dentistry available.
When discussing treatment with patients, it’s important to understand that there are certain treatments the patient needs, which I call Phase One dentistry. With Phase One dentistry, it’s important to communicate to the patient the urgency of the doctor’s treatment plan, because to postpone this type of dentistry will make correction more difficult. Phase Two dentistry is the “next level,” and should also be discussed with the patient. This level includes clinical treatment that may not be needed, but will enhance their smile and improve their overall dental health, such as the removal of old amalgams. And then there’s elective and cosmetic dentistry, which I call Phase Three dentistry. Make sure every patient knows the opportunities available in your office. Even though they may not proceed with Level Two or Three dentistry immediately, you’ve educated the patient and left the door open for future discussions and treatment.
When it comes to discussing fees, it is very important that the practice determines who is going to be comfortable with this role. I believe the presentation of fees is an art to be learned like clinical dentistry itself. If the dentist is comfortable presenting fees and handling patients seeking to bargain or deal on the costs, there’s no reason they shouldn’t discuss fees. However, most dentists admit they prefer not to discuss fees, but rather focus on the delivery of clinical dentistry. Seventy percent of case acceptance breaks down because of the way the fees were or were not explained. So, it’s important to listen to the patient’s financial concerns, enthusiastically promote the practice’s payment options, and clearly communicate the financial protocol.
I recommend using a trained treatment coordinator, because you will have a higher success rate when someone is an excellent communicator, and can comfortably and confidently present the financial protocol and treatment fees. In larger practices, there may be several people involved in the discussion of treatment and fees. It is important that there is no inconsistency or communication breakdown between team members and clear documentation of all patient conversations must be maintained. You’ll find patients have more respect for the business team when systems are consistent.
Your financial protocol
Consistent fees and payment policies are vital to the health of your practice. A dental practice is not a bank or a charitable organization, and you deserve to get paid for the service you offer. Never be embarrassed about charging appropriate fees. And, don’t pre-judge a patient’s ability to pay. A consistent financial policy or protocol can help in several ways. First, every patient wants, and deserves, to be treated the same way. Be cautious when offering one patient a “deal,” because be assured they will promote your generosity to all their friends and family, who will then assume this is your normal fee structure. By setting and communicating consistent fees, you help create a high-trust environment for the patient, which makes them more satisfied and comfortable with your practice.
Exactly what should be included in your financial policy will vary from practice to practice and on whether you choose to accept insurance assignment. Most patients expect, and are quite willing to pay for dental services, but many will take any opportunity to postpone payment. And, even though every office is unique, ideally you should insist on receiving payment at time of treatment. It is much wiser to get a commitment to pay in advance of treatment, rather than spend the time trying to clear up overdue accounts 90 days later.
Offering patients payment opportunities
Just as important as confidently presenting both fees and insurance reimbursement policies is the presentation of a patient’s payment options. The reason to offer patients several payment options is to make it easier for them to find a comfortable financial solution so they can begin treatment. Today, there are many payment options. Cash, cheque, and debit cards are the most common. Many practices allow patients to pay 50 percent of the treatment fee when the appointment is booked and the balance when treatment is complete. Other popular options include VISA and Mastercard.
Another option that has recently been made available is CareCredit. It is a third-party financing programme that offers patients no interest payment plans, allowing them the opportunity to accept Phase One, Two and even the Phase Three dentistry they may not have considered previously. And, offering no interest payment plans not only helps increase treatment acceptance, but can improve patient retention and loyalty by taking finances and unpaid bills out of the relationship. You get paid right away and there’s no responsibility to your practice if the patient is slow paying or defaults.
Preparing for the presentation
When discussing treatment and fees you need to either “be prepared, or be prepared to fail.” For the presentation to go smoothly, you must be organized and prepared. The first step is to get a written, detailed treatment plan from the doctor, including Phase One, Two and Three recommendations and alternatives clearly listed. Having current x-rays as a visual and educational tool during the presentation is also essential so the treatment coordinator can point out specific areas and discuss why the doctor has diagnosed the treatment. And, ideally, digital photographs using cosmetic imaging are incredible tools that show the patient what their smile could look like if they accepted treatment.
It is also important to have accurate estimates of the fees for each option the doctor has recommended, then present the patient with a portfolio at the end of the presentation. Enclose photos and your financial policy so the patient can review them at their leisure or discuss them with a family member or friend.
Every practice has the tools to make effective treatment and fee presentations. It simply takes the right people, a little training and practice, some preparation and the commitment to not only help patients get the best a
nd healthiest smile possible, but also to your practice to receive payment for the quality dentistry provided. Because making a profit without feeling guilty is all in the way you communicate with your patients.
Anita Jupp is President of Anita Jupp & Company, Dental Practice Management Worldwide.