With dental practices closed for routine care and only open for emergencies, the need to communicate with your patients and inform them of what’s happening is vital.
Here, four practice owners, Paul Reaney at Markethill Dental; Chris Loughridge from Loughridge Dental Care; Jennifer and Trevor McKissick from Ballyclare Dental, tell Gary Nelson, about their approach to communicating with their membership plan patients …
Gary: Were you nervous or feeling slightly overwhelmed by the scale of phoning your patients?
Paul: To grow a large membership plan in the practice doesn’t happen overnight. It takes many years to build a supportive team with the skills and belief that prevention and continuity of care is in the best interests of not only the patients’ oral health, but their general health and wellbeing.
To maintain the relationship and trust with the patients requires constant improvement of how we deliver this care and we never take this for granted. Suddenly when the environment changes beyond our control and the future is very uncertain, you worry how members will react…not from any negative experience from the practice or team but because the patients’ future is also uncertain and they also have concerns of their own.
So, of course I was nervous about phoning so many patients, when you don’t really know how someone will react in such unique and stressful times.
Chris: At the start, I was really nervous, wondering how patients would react. Also, the enormity of the task was quite daunting…so many phone calls – although I couldn’t say ‘so little time’!
The reaction of the patients was fantastic, they were delighted to hear from someone, delighted that we cared and delighted to be given solid information about their health care. One lady was so delighted that she handwrote us a lovely thank you note and dropped it through our letterbox on her daily walk.
When I called her to thank her, she said, ‘People are at home frightened to death by all the news feeds and that it was nice to know that somebody cared about them’ and described it as a lovely gesture and a random act of kindness!
I was very concerned that patients would want to cancel their plans. Only one lovely girl said she would have to cancel all her Direct Debits because of the financial impact of lockdown… I told her we would continue to look after her family as normal and she could reinstate the Direct Debit when she was ready.
Trevor and Jennifer: We weren’t nervous, more anxious that we need to reach out to our patients, especially the elderly, the vulnerable, etc and to let them know that we are still here and that although dentistry is severely limited at present, we will be right back at it as soon as possible.
Patients may still cancel their dental plan, everyone has individual situations, however we do not want to sit back and ‘do nothing’, to be invisible and therefore allow our patients to forget that dental health is so important.
Dentistry is a very important part of health, and patients will worry about this part of health.
Gary: Why did you feel this was the right thing to do?
Paul: All our Practice Plan members are regular attenders to the practice, either with the hygienist or myself. They’ve previously committed their trust into our hands to look after them… and we, in return, have committed to care for them. We know their background and with most cases, we’ve watched how their family have grown over the years… as they have ours.
So was it the right thing to do?, I would answer it was the only thing to do…not because I needed to do it but it’s what I wanted to do.
Chris: We have a great relationship with our patients and try to keep them as informed as possible. The more calls I made, the more I realised that this was the right thing to do! They were delighted to be kept up to date and appreciated the reminder of the necessity to take great care of their teeth.
Trevor and Jennifer: We have been part of the local community for such a long time. We provide dentistry to the best of our ability to this community and are rewarded by our patients returning year on year and recommending us to others.
We cannot provide dentistry as we know it at present, however we can still communicate with the local community, we can still reach out.
Dentistry is a very important part of health, and patients will worry about this part of health. So we wanted to be able to reassure them about immediate problems and our return to dentistry as soon as it is safe to do so for all.
Gary: What reaction did you receive from your patients?
Paul: Not the reaction I expected! Our intention was to offer support to the membership plan patient we were phoning but in most cases the patient reversed the question and were more interested in how our team were, and genuinely concerned about our safety as we provided care in the local emergency dental Covid-19 clinic.
Most were surprised by the phone call as they assumed that we would be too busy to make contact, other than by the normal and automated texts, social media posts and emails from the practice.
Chris: We reassured everyone that we were only a phone call away if they had any worries. (dental or otherwise). I even offered to do some shopping for people who were housebound.
We also told them we would be working extra hard as soon as we reopened to take good care of them when we get to the other side.
Trevor and Jennifer: Our patients first and foremost loved the communication, some are on their own, some are vulnerable, and some hadn’t spoken to many people since lockdown.
Secondly, they appreciated the reassurance of what to do in the event of a dental emergency, albeit the emergency arrangements are subject to change.
Gary: What reassurances did you offer your patients?
Paul: It was a valuable and personal opportunity to let them know what arrangements we were making to maintain their oral care during this period of restricted access to the emergency care, reassuring them that their initial contact for any emergency would be ourselves.
It was encouraging to let them know we were prioritising membership patients for appointments when things gradually return to normal. More importantly it was a valuable time for patients to ask questions they may have had reservations to send by email, text or social media.
The most important reassurance we can offer is that we are still here should they need us and we are already making arrangements to facilitate their future care.
Trevor and Jennifer: We reassured them that whenever we get out of this crisis, whenever we can resume services to any extent, we will do so. We will be flat out working on dental health for our community.
Our thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences of communicating with patients during this time. You can also access more advice and guidance on this topic via our COVID-19 Resource Page.