This is a question that we often get asked to advise on, particularly by practice managers who are looking for a system that will ease the day-to-day running of the practice. Appointment zoning does exactly that, providing a structure for the front desk team to better manage the clinicians’ time which increases efficiency, making the entire team less stressed and enhancing the experience for patients.
The fact we are regularly asked this question suggests many people recognise the benefits of zoning the diary, but simply don’t know where to begin. It can be tricky to introduce new changes or different processes into a practice, particularly when it comes to something so integral to the daily management, like the appointment book, and the fear of disruption or doing it wrong can sometimes hold people back.
To look at how to overcome this and make those initial first steps I asked Lisa Bainham, President of ADAM and a Practice Manager who introduced zoning into her practice, to share her experience and answer the question, how do I best approach zoning in the diary?
Lisa: ‘We decided many moons ago that we needed to take better control of the diary…as much for the sake of our sanity as for the improved efficiency it would bring. At the time we were a mixed practice but were progressively increasing our private to NHS percentages and found it was tricky to work well switching between the two throughout the day.
Factors to consider
In addition, we were introducing a full-time Treatment Coordinator (TCO) service and needed to ensure that these appointments were integrated to create maximum efficiency and conversion rates. We took some valuable advice and began the process of taking control.
Some initial factors for consideration were: setting an hourly rate of earning required for each surgery and performer, meeting targets and identifying the different earning types for treatments. For example, new patients, whether exams are fee earning or ‘non-earning’ such as plan patients, emergencies, NHS, children, long appointments, whilst also considering the Hygienist and TCO diaries.
So, once the above have been established, you can set about implementing zones into your diary.
How to begin
Keeping it simple by colour zoning the different appointment types is a must…whether you are computerised or run a manual book, this is fairly easy to do. Most software systems will allow you to zone and it should ideally be done a minimum of six months in advance. If you don’t work on an electronic system, you can get your good old pens out and start colouring!
It’s vital that you train your team, such as by practising conversations or using scripts, so they understand the importance and benefits of the zones and using them becomes second nature. If they aren’t confident with the system then it will potentially cause problems and patients may resist.
It’s also very important to understand that you may have various different associate/performers who require slightly different zoning, however, providing this doesn’t stray too far from the basic rules and/or conflict with somebody else’s aims, it shouldn’t cause too much of a problem.
Taking into account different people’s needs will help to ensure the zoning is embraced by all and runs effectively. For example, we found that some dentists feel that they are at their very best mentally in a morning, and therefore preferred some of the less taxing treatment zones to be later in the day.
Also, our emergency zones were better scheduled just before lunch, so if we did run over it didn’t cause chaos to any afternoon appointments, but bear in mind that in this scenario you need to ensure your team are happy to provide cover for each other.
Initially we found that there was a bit of resistance to this system and the reception team were sometimes going out of the allocated zones. If you allow this to creep in, it will snowball and your objectives will not be met. To combat this, I introduced Exemption Log Reports which allowed team members to book patients outside of the correct zones but meant that for every patient that was incorrectly zoned, they had to have an extremely good reason for doing so and explain why in the report. I know this sounds a bit tedious, but the exception cases did become less frequent and eventually the benefits were visible to all.
Creating children’s zones
One of the areas where we had the most resistance was in our children zones. We were finding that from around 3.30 – 4.30 most days the practice became visibly busy with the children coming along for their appointments. This resulted in a high-volume footfall, noise and quite often late arrivals due to school related delays and traffic. On top of that, the children, parents and, often, staff were left feeling quite stressed and it wasn’t the experience we wanted our patients to receive.
Our solution was to zone our diaries to only allow children to be seen on one day a week after 3.30 plus, on one of our Children’s Days – which we hold for one day during each of the school holidays, closing the practice to all other patients.
We make these days a positive experience by having a theme, where the team wear fancy dress and we have face painting and other fun activities going on. We also open our Hygienist diaries so that after seeing the dentist, children go through for oral health instructions or fissure sealants if necessary, which saves the parents a return trip.
The feedback has been amazing and whilst we have to make some exceptions where necessary, the majority of our child patients are now seen on these allocated days.
Happy patients and an efficient practice
There may be a few obstacles along the way and it is definitely a bit of a learning curve as every practice will need to do it slightly differently to the next, but after introducing appointment zoning we are running a much more efficient, profitable practice.
Ultimately, we find our patients are very happy and the team feel in total control.’
Thanks to Lisa for sharing how she tackled this issue and providing some very practical examples of how to make zoning work for you. There will obviously be different considerations to take into account depending on your practice, such as the needs of your dentists and the types of services you offer. However, spending the time to decide what is most important to your business and how you can bespoke your zoning to support that will help to ensure you get started on the right foot and reap the benefits it brings for you and your patients.