20 Sep 2013  •  Practice Management  •  5min read

The Changing Face of Communication

Nigel Jones, Sales Director at Practice Plan, looks at the topics that arise in his visits to practices. This month he discusses the changing face of communication with patients and how to embrace the use of technology and incorporate it into your dental practice.

With most practices seemingly having to work harder to attract new patients and to maintain appropriate levels of treatment plan uptake, it’s been interesting to see how more and more are enhancing their use of technology to improve communication with patients. For example, the number of practices that recently attended our workshop on social media showed just how much interest there now is in harnessing the power of Facebook and Twitter. However, there remains huge variation among practice owners in the enthusiasm for any form of electronic communication.

Even now, recent research by Practice Plan has found that up to a third of practices still don’t have a website and for a further third, what website exists is unlikely to be contributing much to the task of appealing to potential patients. This is really quite surprising given that whatever the prompt to consider a practice, be it recommendation, external signage or some other form of marketing, most prospective patients will try to get a sense of what the practice is about via the web.

Also, it’s still relatively uncommon to find practices using email, let alone social media, to communicate with their existing patients. The routine to capture email addresses is a process that’s far from habitual for most.

For a profession that uses new technology very effectively in the enhancement of its clinical services, the slow adoption of technology for communication might seem a little incongruous. Of course, financial considerations have a part to play but actually, many of these solutions cost relatively little and often a lot less than a new piece of clinical kit discovered and purchased on the spot at a show!  The main barrier seems to be time; time to work out what’s appropriate, how best to incorporate it into a practice’s current approach and how to maintain its relevance and therefore credibility.

However, I’m increasingly coming across practices that have invested some of their precious time in evaluating the possibilities and seem to be reaping the rewards.

For existing patients, this might manifest itself in an improved recall rate through using the communication means preferred by each patient, or in increased treatment plan uptake through the use of tablet technology to explain treatment options to the patient. To solve the challenge of maximising surgery utilisation in the face of late cancellations, practices are now starting to adopt apps like Gappt to push out notification to suitable patients of the short-term availability of appointments. Email follow-ups to appointments that provide links to useful educational articles for patients, as well as the chance to complete an online satisfaction survey, are very well received by patients at practices that have taken this step.

For potential new patients, a website that not only has content created very much from a patient’s perspective, but recognises that many people are searching for a dentist in the evenings after work and therefore incorporates an online booking facility, are becoming more common. Whether it’s through a practice’s existing practice management software or a company such as Toothpick, reservations about the loss of control over the appointment book are being addressed and allowing practices to reflect the immediate way the internet allows us to purchase and commit to services.

Some practices are taking this a stage further by moving to cloud-based practice management software, such as Helix’s i-Care Dental, where the easy access via a range of devices applies as much to patients as it does to the practice owner and team, and the patient portal allows not only online appointment booking but the ability to make payments and review treatment plans via the web.

And of course, there is the ever-growing use of social media. I have to admit to being one of those sceptics who through Twitter would disappear pretty quickly and that Facebook had its place as a business tool for dental practices but it would be fairly limited. Judging from the number of practices with which I am now friends on Facebook and the steady stream of bite-sized pieces of information I receive, whether it’s patient testimonials, whitening offers or useful educational links, I got that badly wrong!

Of course, clever communication techniques alone will not be enough. The most important relationship element remains the trust a patient has in the individual clinician and their team. However, the use of technology to build and reinforce that trust will grow and grow. So roll on five years from now and I suspect those practices currently seen as trailblazing will have become the norm.

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