Treating Dental Patients with Special Needs

Everyone deserves the best possible quality of dental care. If you want your dental clinic to be a place that welcomes all people, it is important to be proactive in your approach to care for one particular segment of the population: people with special needs.

As was recently noted in a paper from the National Centre of Biotechnology Information, the incidence of oral disease is much higher among adults with disabilities than in the general population, in part because people with special needs often struggle to get the same level of dental care.

In my years working in the dental industry, I have become convinced that providing high quality care to patients with special needs is the responsibility of all healthcare professionals, including dentists.

However, there are several barriers to oral health care often faced by those with special needs that every practitioner should be aware of:

  • Language barriers
  • Transportation issues
  • Sensory impairments (including hearing and vision problems)
  • Dental clinics that are not wheelchair accessible
  • Psychosocial challenges, such as a lack of oral health literacy, general dental anxiety, as well as past negative experiences
  • Cultural barriers, including health care providers without training in cultural competency in areas such as disability language and knowledge of how to treat patients with special needs

Adding education on treating patients with special needs to dental and dental hygiene curricula is a major step toward solving these issues, but progress is slow, and in the meantime, it’s up to individual dental practices to stay ahead of the curve.

To make our practices more open to people with special needs and our staff better equipped to provide a high standard of service to all people, we first need to understand both the challenges and rewards of treating these patients. Here are two things to keep in mind as you make your clinic more accessible for everyone:   

 “Special Needs” is a Broad Category

According to the American Association of Pediatric Dentists, in the context of healthcare a special need is “any physical, developmental, mental, sensory, behavioural, cognitive, or emotional impairment or limiting condition that requires medical management, health care intervention, and/or use of specialized services or programs.”

This means there is no single way to make your dental clinic more accessible: instead, you need to approach accessibility from a variety of different angles, always placing the patient at the centre of service.

In some cases, this may simply mean training your staff to be more sensitive to the needs and preferences of patients who may not be capable of using any automated patient communication you may have implemented or who may require additional support during check-ups. In other cases, it may mean making your clinic itself more accessible by removing barriers to entry and interaction with your staff.

In order to facilitate these different needs, it is important to pay attention to the work done by organizations like the National Council on Disability and the Canadian Public Health Association. These organizations have resources available to help you make your clinic more accessible to a broad range of patients.

Every Patient is an Individual

Perhaps most importantly, it is crucial to remember that people with special needs are individuals just like everyone else and deserve to be treated as such.

While technical tools can help you to keep track of needs that each of your patients has, it is also important to avoid stereotyping patients based on those needs. One of the most common mistakes that healthcare practitioners make when dealing with patients who have special needs is to foreground the disability, rather than seeing it as merely one aspect of a complex person.

Taken to an extreme, this can lead to problems like improper or insufficient pain management, or even a misdiagnosis. But even when this isn’t the case, overemphasizing the disability can make patients feel alienated and unseen.  

For this reason, in addition to making sure your clinic can accommodate different needs, you should also strive to foster an environment in which the unique challenges faced by any person aren’t a barrier that keeps them from getting the care they deserve.

This does not need to require a complete overhaul of your approach to healthcare provision: as I have noted in previous blogs, making sure your front-line staff are generally trained to provide engaging and customer-centred care is essential to the success of your clinic.

You should view provision of care to patients with special needs as simply an extension of the high-quality care you provide to everyone who comes into your clinic.

As Sandie Baillargeon, owner of Dental Practice Consulting Services, states in her piece on interacting with clients that have disabilities or impairments, “Removing barriers to communication is the best way of building and sustaining a positive long term relationship with all of your clients”.

If we are to truly extend the same level of care and respect to all our patients, we will need to bear in mind that special needs come in a variety of different forms. Seeing the person rather than the disability is paramount to the provision of high quality service. 

Engaging Staff Make for Engaged Patients: Spotlight on the Dental Assistant

We’ve been talking a lot on this blog lately about big picture ideas and how mission statements and value propositions contribute to the success of your dental practice. Today I want to remind readers that it really is people that keep a practice running and, with a focus on the key role of the dental assistant, explore how finding the right person for the job can increase practice production and improve workflows.

There are those outside the industry who don’t understand the many facets of this position – even some clinicians may not always appreciate the complexity of the role and the multi-dimensional value that the right dental assistant brings to any practice. So, I’m putting a spotlight on this often-undervalued position to show how the right dental assistant will keep your patients engaged and your business growing.

Look for Well-Rounded Staff Members
To perform at the essential level, dental assistants must be well-versed in anatomy and physiology, dental radiography, oral microbiology, and preventative and emergency care. And, they must be skilled at:

  • Preparing treatment rooms with tray set-ups and equipment while keeping a sterile environment
  • Seating and preparing patients in the treatment room
  • Checking blood pressure
  • Taking and processing radiographs (including a keen understanding of the safety protocols surrounding radiation exposure)
  • Preparing materials for dental impressions and other procedures
  • Assisting the dentist at the chairside during procedures
  • Sterilizing instruments according to proper protocols and maintaining equipment

When you are looking for your next dental assistant, be sure that they not only have the hard skills listed above but that they also have soft skills such as the ability to communicate effectively, strong attention to detail, and compassion for the patient. These are skills they can’t teach in dental college and you need to be sure that your new hire will bring them to the job.

Communication Skills Matter
While dental assistants need to know about all the typical dental procedures you perform, it’s their ability to communicate with patients about how the practice will help with the state of patients’ oral health that makes the dental assistant an important pillar of your practice.

Dental assistants are one of the members of the dental health team that help guide patients through the process of comprehending, accepting and then eventually completing treatment – all of this takes the ability to speak well and know when to listen.

Assistants need to take down pertinent patient histories, learn from patients the specifics of their oral health care routines and explain how treatments will be beneficial to their unique situation.

Attention to Detail is Key
Being a detail-oriented worker is another key trait for dental assistants. In order to complete treatments requiring many steps, dental assistants must carefully pay attention to each step in the treatment protocol and focus on assisting the dentist at the right times to maintain a fluid workflow.

Proactive thinking and attention to detail means that patients get the level of treatment they deserve.

Compassion Counts
Fear of the dentist’s chair is the second most common fear in the Western world and your clinic will be catering to people with this fear week in and week out. Nobody wants to think about it but when a patient starts to cry in the dental chair because they are terrified of their dentist, a dental assistant’s compassion can be the key to comforting them.

Form a Bond
The best moment to connect and engage with patients and form a bond with them is throughout stages of the appointment queue. Every dental assistant should have training on how to approach a patient, how to make them feel comfortable and how to acknowledge and help them overcome any fear they may have of the procedures to be performed.

Engaging in small, light conversations can be a great ice-breaker as long as staff are careful not to be too intrusive or pushy. Often, a calm demeanour and pleasant approach are enough to do the job.

Maintain Patients Bonds Between Appointments
For small dental offices it is quite common for dental assistants to do double duty in that they may also be responsible for tasks such as booking appointments and patient post treatment follow up. In these cases, the dental assistant will need additional skills that include how to use the basic functions of your dental practice management system. In particular, the dental assistant will need to know how to schedule appointments, update patient files and locate patients that require follow up.

Performing these extended duties is also a great way for dental assistants to stay on top of patients’ health and demonstrate that the person who assisted with their treatment in the operatory is continuing to take an active interest in their well being. This can forge bonds that lead to lifetime patients.

These days, taking patient engagement to the next tier requires having your entire dental staff on board – working as a cohesive whole. Team-wide, high-level communication skills come with practice, but once implemented, the patient experience can really skyrocket – especially when each office administrator, hygienist, dentist and in this case the dental assistant, operates beyond their basic training.

Remember this and watch your practice grow.

Automating Patient Communication for your Dental Practice: A Smart Business Decision

In recent years, my experience has been that the dental industry has shifted to a more value-based and patient-centered care model. This transition has made improving the patient experience a major focus for many dental practices. Implementing automated communication by way of automated email, texts and patient portals is a great way to achieve this objective since it provides convenience and time savings for patients that ultimately lead to increased patient satisfaction. The added benefit for dental practices is streamlined patient communications and more efficient practice administration.

But Will Patients Embrace Automated Communication from You?

For many (including your patients), checking their mobile device is the last thing they do at night and the first thing they do in the morning. In fact, smartphone owners report using their device more frequently today for mobile email and texting than to actually make phone calls. Furthermore, 97% of mobile users will read a text within 15 minutes of receipt and 84% will respond within one hour (Neilsen Mobile survey). 

Although open rates for emails are reported to be much lower than texts, they are on average, still a respectable 22% https://www.textanywhere.net/faq/what-is-the-average-sms-marketing-open-rate. However, you could expect your own email open rates to be significantly higher since your patients can identify you as the source of their messages.  

So automation of messaging that caters to convenience has become the communication standard for today’s marketing and consumer-focused organizations. It helps build one-on-one relationships with existing and new clients (or in this case patients), providing personalized options and direct connections. Since it offers quick, easy solutions to day-to-day routines and tasks, it’s the perfect “A click-and-it’s-done” tool for a busy dental practice (or one looking to get busier with more patients!)

Appointment Reminders/Confirmation

The most common message type sent by dental practices is appointment notifications, confirmation requests and outstanding treatment notices. As an example, with a keystroke, the software application sends individual “request for confirmation” messages for a selected group of patients using the preferred communication method/s of each individual (text or email).  Message recipients can respond using their smart phone, notebook or computer and in many cases, automatically update their e-calendars. With fully integrated systems, patient responses automatically update the affected data fields within the practice management software such as scheduled appointments now showing as confirmed. In short, there is a tremendous time and cost savings opportunity when managing appointments.

Validation

A User Study recently conducted by ABELDent confirmed similar time/cost savings as suggested above. One Office Manager reported that by changing telephone appointment confirmation and patient information requests to a methodical, automated SMS approach, she saved at least 25 hours per month (approx. 300 hours/year). That’s over $7,500 in annualized savings based on average dental practice labour costs. This real life example does not even factor reduced no shows or consider the more revenue-producing initiatives that she was able to undertake using those recovered hours. https://www.abelsoft.com/dental-software/Products/online-dental-appointment-scheduling-software

Patient Portals – Electronic Communication Facilitator

Patient portals are the preferred conduit to send potentially sensitive automated messages as they provide encryption protection and data does not need to be stored anywhere during transmission. Patient portals also provide a secure online website that gives patients convenient 24-hour access to specific information (as determined by the dental practice). Put another way, patient portals enable individuals to carry out an array of tasks that previously had to be completed either via telephone or during an in person visit.  It’s a smart next step in giving your practice the platform and the power to move towards increased patient engagement

Josh Gray, vice president, Athena Research, says online access translates into patient retention and financial rewards: “If you can get a patient on a portal, they’re 13 percent more likely to return. The value of the patient who returns is eight to 20 percent higher.”

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/patient-portals-saving-medical-practices-overhead-improving-collections-managers-say

Patient Portal screen allowing secure patient access to personal information

Conclusion 

Automated patient communication portals are a way to give your dental practice a more dynamic, modern edge while also enabling you to realize administrative efficiencies, cost savings, reduced no-shows and increased patient growth. Since portals cater to patient comfort and convenience by utilizing familiar mobile technology, they are rapidly becoming the preferred method for both patients and healthcare providers to exchange select information. User interfaces and data security measures also ensure that unauthorized data changes, patient confidentiality and data breaches are not a concern.

In most cases, the preferred patient portal solution is one included as a component of dental practices management software due to tighter integration between the two applications and in many cases, lower cost. In a business model where client communication can extend to six or nine-month intervals, it only makes sense to take advantage of a quick, convenient and welcome opportunity to build better relationships with your patients.

Things Every Dental Receptionist Needs to Know: Part 2

Customer service at your dental practice begins and ends with your receptionist. The receptionist is the first person potential patients will talk to, and is likely the last person they’ll speak with before they leave your office.

A good receptionist makes patients feel completely welcomed and at home, transforming patients’ healthcare experience and getting them excited to take care of their oral health. On the other hand, a bad experience at the reception desk can leave patients feeling anonymous, uncared for and reluctant to come back.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post outlining a few of the things every receptionist should know if they want to provide patients with the kind of positive experience that will turn strangers into regular patients.

Today, I’ve updated that list with a few new points for receptionists to keep in mind if they want to make patients feel at home immediately, particularly by taking advantage of current dental practice technology.

1. Don’t Let Patients Fall Through the Cracks

One of the most important roles receptionists play is making sure that patients book regular appointments and follow through with the appointments they have made. This should always be done gently and professionally, in a way that lets patients know that your clinic cares about their well being and wants to help them take care of their oral health.

Unfortunately, it can be easy for patients who chose not to pre-book their recall appointment to fall through the cracks, which is why you should make sure your receptionists have access to web tools that make tracking appointments easy – such as ABELDent’s Treatment Manager.

Much more than simple patient reminder software, the Treatment Manager keeps track of relevant booking information and creates contact dates for each required appointment, streamlining the booking process and allowing receptionists to focus more on face-to-face patient care.

2. Make Patients Feel Individually Valued

No one wants to feel like a number, and one very small but very important thing receptionists can do to make patients feel individually valued is to keep track of little details about their lives, work, and booking preferences.

For example, if a patient works nights, has children, or frequently travels for work, you’ll want to make sure that when you call them about bookings, they aren’t repeating the same information every time. Appointment scheduling software that includes options for making notes about patients’ preferences is the best way to provide each patient with personalized service that will make them feel genuinely valued.

The healthcare industry is different from other industries in some important ways, but receptionists need to remember that patients’ expectations of your dental practice are shaped by the customer service treatment they receive in other industries – such as their favourite restaurants and spas. If you want to make patients feel truly cared for, you’ll need to offer comparable service.

3. Make the Most of the Tools at Your Disposal

A big part of any receptionist’s job is entering data, remaining aware of scheduling changes, and managing patient preferences. This is a lot of work and the more patients you have the more difficult it can be to stay on top of everything.

This is why we designed ABELDent software to optimize workflows and system navigation. While learning new software systems may seem daunting at first, it is important for receptionists to remember that these tools will save huge amounts of time down the road. A few hours invested in mastering the software today will save days of work in the future!

4. Accurate Data Starts at the Receptionist’s Desk

There’s an old saying in business that if you want to know how a company or clinic is really doing, you should talk to the receptionist. Receptionists have their fingers on the pulse of their organization, and they’re the ones who can tell you whether bookings are up or down and which patients are choosing to re-book.

As an executive, I know that my entire operation relies on dedicated front-line staff members who are keeping track of the information I need in order to make informed decisions about the direction of my company.

Without solid data, dental practice management is a guessing game. That’s why it is so important for receptionists to have the right reporting and analytics tools to pass that data on to the dentists and practice managers.

ABELDent’s analytic tools give any practice the means to monitor demographic trends and practice growth, while also mapping productivity and scheduling efficiency.

Your reception team needs to stay on top of this technology in order to maximize productivity – after all, if the data isn’t being entered correctly, even the best dental management software won’t be able to make a difference.

Fortunately, ABELDent’s distinctive software tools can equip any receptionist, empowering them to offer superstar service to each and every one of your patients.

Communication Tips for Different Patient Types

Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes notices a negative comment on her medical chart and then proceeds to go to incredible lengths to have the comments removed? She becomes increasingly disruptive and each new doctor adds another line in the chart about how ‘difficult’ she is which of course incites more disruptive behaviour. It’s a very funny episode but dealing with problematic patient behaviour is no laughing matter.

Video clip from the Seinfeld episode

Any dental practitioner will tell you that patients are the lifeblood of their dental clinic, but many will also share stories about their most ‘difficult’ encounters with patients – from the overly demanding, to the downright confused.

Patients are essential to any dental practice and while they pay the bills and also allow you to grow your practice, patient management can be a challenge. I’ve put together a list of some of the most common types of ‘difficult’ patient behaviour and ways that you and your staff can deal with situations as they arise.

patientinpain

1. The Confused Patient

Confused patients can be frustrating to deal with because they simply don’t know what they want or can’t make a decision. They often have only half the information or will come with false assumptions. These patients will ask lots of questions but are unlikely to commit to your service regardless of the quality.

How To Help

Confused patients can take a lot of your time and energy so it’s wise to pinpoint their highest priority problem and figure out how you can best help them. When you’re able to uncover to the actual issue at hand it makes offering the right service easier.

Remind the patient that they came to you for a reason and you are here to help. Ensure that they understand the treatment options presented and the consequences of not going ahead with treatment. Conclude by telling the patient that you respect their decision whatever it may turn out to be.

2. The Non-compliant Patient

Much has been written on the topic of patient compliance in dentistry and patients who refuse to follow a dental healthcare provider’s recommendations can be a real challenge to work with. While on one hand they are simply refusing to listen (which makes treating them over the long haul much more difficult), on the other hand dental clinicians may also start to unfairly blame themselves for not communicating effectively.

What Are Your Options?

Compassion goes a long way, and if you frame the problem as a desire on the part of your dental practice to help this patient, they will likely come around. But if a patient’s non-compliance is interfering with your job as a dental health care provider it may be time to ask them to look for another practice.

This option should definitely be considered a last resort but it might be necessary if patients are simply not following your oral health recommendations.

3. The Ill-tempered Patient

Patients with chronic oral health problems can often bring an irritable, frustrated or even abusive demeanour when they come in for treatments. They want to blame someone for their ongoing issues so they might lash out. No one wants to pay for pain, and for some, this is how they view their trip to the dentist’s chair.

How Your Dental Team Can Help Fix The Problem

The best thing oral healthcare providers can do is empathize with the patient while reminding them that treatment will eventually make things more tolerable. A steady, measured and compassionate tone will help calm irate patients. Remain aware of how far vocal tone and facial expressions go toward calming negative emotions in others.

4. The Demanding Patient

It’s important not to confuse a demanding patient with an ill-tempered or abusive one. A demanding patient is simply frustrated because the reality of the situation differs from what they imagined. Demanding patients will often threaten to leave (some never to return!) and this threat must be taken seriously. Demanding patients might be insecure, or simply expect too much of others.

Go the Extra Mile

When it comes to demanding patients, do your best to accommodate their needs and expectations. To some of your staff it might feel as if you’re caving into unfair demands but there is a way to give in without giving too much up. Ask the patient whether there is something they are expecting from their experience that has not been accommodated. Then you have something to work with – you can either meet the expectation or suggest an alternative solution.

Patience pays off here and it’s important not to respond to emotional outbursts. Say no if you have to but make sure these patients feel you’ve done your best.

Anticipate and Alleviate Negative Attitudes

Ignoring disruptive or disrespectful behaviour can derail any practice – grinding everything to a halt. But if your staff understands how to address inappropriate behaviour, before it escalates, most patients will calm down and even apologize for their outbursts. I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs and it bears repeating that customer service training will help your staff handle a range of situations – with professionalism.

Creating a sense of calm at every stage of the visit also helps. You can invest in improving your waiting room. When patients check in they should be greeted by a friendly member of the staff. If you’re behind schedule make sure someone acknowledges this fact. It never hurts to apologize for minor inconveniences. Finally, at the end of the visit, thank them for their business while setting their next appointment.

While you’ll never have to deal with Elaine Benes, if you encounter any of the above ‘difficult’ patient behaviours, use ABELDent’s tips to help keep your practice running smoothly.

Patient Satisfaction by the Numbers

Have you ever sat in a waiting room tapping your fingers, hoping each time the Nurse appears that your name will be called? Definitely been there, definitely hoped that.

Have you ever noticed that even as a Doctor or Practice Manager yourself, your level of overall satisfaction decreases in direct proportion to your wait time? That after around 10 minutes, your mind starts to calculate the cost of your wasted time? Do you start to issue imaginary invoices to the provider for your own time? I’ve done that as well.

According to recent research conducted by Software Advice, the average wait time in a dental office is 13.5 minutes. Of the over 5,000 patients surveyed, 97% reported frustration with the time they were expected to wait for a pre-booked appointment.

Further, the study found a real co-relation between wait times and patient satisfaction. When patients have to wait for the Hygienist they are more likely to be dissatisfied, but when the provider is earlier than expected patients are both more satisfied and more likely to follow the treatment plan.

Other than mastering the arts of accurate scheduling, streamlined patient processing and efficient clinical work, there is not a lot you can do to avoid delays. Some patients will always be late. Others may take longer than anticipated to treat. Emergencies, cancellations, staff absences… your days rarely unfold exactly as planned.

So while you cannot always control wait times, what you can work on is altering your patients’ perception of the length of their wait. Here are a few suggestions that might help you do that:

  • Create a pleasant atmosphere with comfortable seating.
  • Music and magazines have always been standard. Adding a TV monitor can have a big impact on patient entertainment.
  • Offering complimentary beverages is always appreciated. Bottled water is a great option: simple, refreshing and healthy.
  • Most patients today will keep themselves occupied with their mobile devices. So make sure you offer WiFi – independent of your practice’s access for security purposes – and clearly post login information.
  • Acknowledge patients upon arrival.
  • Communicate wait times whenever possible. 80% of patients say they would feel less frustrated if they were told expected wait times in advance.
  • Manage wait times carefully. Checking back, asking questions, offering an update will make the time seem to have passed more quickly. Rely on practice management software that tracks appointment status, wait times and patient alerts to draw your team’s attention so they can take immediate action to reduce the negative impact of waiting.
  • Use your portal to advise patients via text of any delay expected to exceed 15 minutes.
  • Also use your portal to allow patients to pre-populate and update their personal information and health histories. They will appreciate that you have created a system to help reduce their wait times.
  • Maximize the capabilities of your software to use electronic forms, have patient information at your fingertips and capture real-time data throughout the appointment.
  • Regularly analyze your data to identify and address trends to reduce wait times. Good practice management software tracks the entire patient visit from arrival to departure, giving you the opportunity to learn from recurring issues and specific bottleneck situations.

For the most part, we have all come to expect some degree of wait time when visiting a Dentist or Doctor. You can differentiate your practice by minimizing the impact of the wait, to the delight and surprise of your patients.

 

Satisfied Patients Make Everybody Happy

A few common denominators propel the success of every business:

  • Developing and sticking to a meaningful Unique Value Proposition;
  • Having the right people focus on the right things at the right time;
  • Delivering a customer experience, product or service that is consistent, sustainable and of the highest possible quality.

These are just three basic principles that drive long-term viability and profitability, and they apply as much to managing a dental practice as to any other enterprise. Today’s blog is about end-user impressions – what your patients perceive, experience and remember – and the make-or-break impact they can have on your practice.

Beyond clinical excellence and value-based pricing, what is likely to influence positive patient impressions and drive repeat business? It really comes down to effective communication, smooth operations, disciplined follow up, and consistent service delivery. As part of ABELDent’s Practice Management By Objectives™ methodology, we developed a series of relevant KPIs – Key Performance Indicators – to help you assess your status and guide your progress in these areas. You can easily extrapolate the data from within your existing ABEL software database.

Here are six quantifiable measures that will help you zero in on areas of opportunity:

Patient Satisfaction KPI Chart.png

If you find your own numbers falling short of industry benchmarks, you may want to ponder a few questions:

  • What techniques has your team mastered to build patient satisfaction?
    See the section Dental Patient Retention… What’s it worth to you? in
    Through the Looking Glass: What Your Patients See
  • Is the team confident in asking for referrals? Do they look and listen for triggers?
  • Do you have defined time requirements for each procedure?
  • Are you using a patient kiosk for check in and follow-through?
  • Have you implemented doctor/chair time scheduling?
  • Are you and your team trained in dealing effectively with complaints? Who is empowered to ‘make it right’?
  • Have you established reasonable and realistic patient expectations? Do you provide a new patient welcome kit with written office policies?
  • Do you consistently source new supplies and/or treatment techniques to improve productivity and the patient experience?
  • Do you maximize available technology?

Overall patient satisfaction should be Job One on everyone’s agenda. Staff must be trained and continuously reminded to use empathy in understanding the patient experience. Engagement, loyalty and free-flowing referrals stem from positive patient perceptions.

This group of KPIs is just one of the categories of the strategic practice management we champion. I invite you to continue this conversation by attending one of our webinars or by reaching out to a member of our team at any time.