Dental Economics published a wonderful article, by Dianne Watterson, that highlights one of the biggest pain points for dental practices: maintaining an active and profitable hygiene department. In a nutshell, the piece talks about the difficulty of attracting and retaining new patients, and what the true cost of downtime in the hygiene department is — on average, between $80,000–100,000 per year in foregone revenue. There’s no silver bullet that’ll fix this problem, but I want to share some advice on how you can use your existing marketing elements to help keep your dental hygienists busy.
The Problem: Too Much Downtime in the Hygiene Department
Most practices will want a dental hygienist because it gives you — the dentist — the time to focus on higher-value treatments. But, in order to make hiring a dental hygienist worthwhile you have to fill that person’s hours with appointments. If your practice doesn’t have enough hygiene appointments scheduled each day, you’re paying the hygienist to do nothing. Watterson does a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on a practice scheduling 2–3 appointments per day and comes up with a $60,000 annual loss.
Wait, there’s more! According to the article, around three-quarters of your restorative appointments come from issues found during teeth- and periodontal cleanings. So, if you’re not scheduling enough hygiene appointments, you’re also not getting the high-value cases that follow from these. This is an opportunity cost, and, once we add everything together, an under-productive hygiene department can cost your practice over $100,000 every year. That’s a big problem, so let’s talk solutions.
The Solution(s): Schedule More Hygiene Appointments!
But, “schedule more hygiene appointments” is easier said than done. What are some specific, actionable steps you can take? The article shares some general advice on how to minimize downtime in your practice:
- Schedule appointments based on a specific estimate of how long the treatment will take. Shorter treatments should have shorter appointments and longer treatments should have longer appointments, and that way you can schedule more appointments each day. It will also cost you less if a patient cancels at the last minute since it’ll cause less downtime.
- Communicate with known cancelers by different means than you would your other patients. If you know that a certain patient is likely to no-show, call that person directly rather than relying on indirect communication (e.g. a message, an appointment card, or a letter through the mail).
- Substitute assisted hygiene for traditional work-alone hygiene.
- About 75-percent of your restorative dentistry patients will come from hygiene appointments, so make sure your hygienists are catching your patients’ oral health problems. These are opportunities to educate our patients and have them come back to the office.
- Another great article recommends that your hygienists and other members of your staff work to ensure that patients schedule their next appointment before they leave your office.
Take Full Advantage of Your Marketing Tools
What else can you do to get more out of your hygiene department? Let’s talk cancellations. Hygiene appointments suffer from the highest cancellation rates, so reducing this rate can go a long ways in bringing in more revenue. One option is to implement cancellation guidelines and to charge a late-cancellation fee. Alternatively, you can offer a positive incentive — 10-percent off your second hygiene appointment. Sure, this costs your practice some money, but it actually could save quite a bit if it reduces the cancellation rate (not showing up at all is a bigger loss to you than 10-percent off).
Some cancellations you just can’t avoid, so what can you do about that? If you’ve been working on building your social media presence, you have a significant number of your patients following you on Facebook and other platforms. When patients cancel, you can alert your other patients to these open time-slots and they can schedule an appointment on that same day. This one of the many reasons you should invest in your social media, because the more patients you can reach out to the more likely you can find a back-up for your cancellations.
What about retention rates? How do you get more first-time patients to come back? One recommendation, mentioned above, is to schedule the next appointment the same day the patient is in the office. For the patients who don’t want to schedule their next appointment at your office, you can use your marketing tools to reach out to them. If your practice has an online newsletter, or if you send out direct mail media, you can use these tools to target first-time patients, keeping your practice at the top of their mind and making them more likely to return to you for future dental work. Similarly, you can use pay-per-click retargeting to do the same thing — all you need to do is have first-time patients visit a specific part of your website, and we can build a retargeting list from there.
Finally, you should also make sure that your staff isn’t inadvertently turning patients away. Last week, we talked about this and we gave a number of examples of how your staff can lose a new patient because of mistakes which can easily be avoided. Relatedly, you may also be interested in reading our discussion on how to make patients happier, more likely to return, and more likely to refer your practice to others.
What are some of the solutions your practice has put in place to make full use of its hygienic department? Let us know in the comments below.