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In a dental office, we have a ton of things to do from the moment we walk in in the morning until we walk out at the end of the day. Many times, we don’t get to it all! We are always looking for ways to increase efficiency and get things done faster. But sometimes efficiency gets in the way of truly taking care of our patients and putting them first.

We have to remember that we are here because of our patients. If they decide to stop coming to our office, then we will no longer have jobs. We need to make sure to always remember that patients should come first, no matter how much we have on our plate to finish.

There are two reasons it is vital to always put the patients first:

1. Patients judge us on their subjective experience.

Dental patients don’t know whether or not you are a highly trained and dedicated dentist or hygienist or dental team. But what they do know is how they feel when they are in the office. To take care of their dental needs, we have to address all of their customer service needs when they are in our office or on the phone. That means we need to always work to give them an amazing experience. Patients are more likely to get necessary dentistry done and trust your office when they feel their experience is exceptional.

2. Most patients are nervous or afraid at the dental office.

As we all know, patients are usually a bit scared when they come to the dentist. In order to take care of them, we need to help them with that fear and make it one of our top priorities to put them at ease. If we put efficiency first, rather than focusing on the patient’s comfort, the patient’s fear might escalate. We certainly are not providing the best possible customer service if our patients have a fearful experience at our office. Being totally focused on getting tasks checked off means that we will completely miss the issue of fear. Patients are more than just teeth, so always put the person first.

Regardless of how “busy” the office gets or how efficient we are striving to be, it is our job to make sure that patients feel safe and comfortable, give them awesome dental care, and provide an amazing experience for them anytime they are in the office—no exceptions. With training for all staff (and doctors, too!), it is absolutely possible to be both efficient and focused on patient needs.

Here are some specific recommendations about keeping patients’ needs in mind.

These are all areas that concern me when I speak with dental professionals about a well-run office.

  • Phone interactions. Beginning with the first time a patient picks up the phone to call our office, and each time we talk with them on the phone, we have an opportunity to make the patient feel they are important to us. If you are not answering your phones and their call goes to voicemail, then they’re going to be frustrated they did not reach anyone or just feel like their need is not a priority to your office. If they call your office and the team member answering is rude, distracted by multitasking, or does not speak warmly to the patient to demonstrate their appreciation, then that comes across to the patient as uncaring. Your phones should be answered all the time during business hours, and they should only be answered by someone who has been trained to understand in detail the importance of each and every call to the office.

  • Interactions in reception or with front office. Every patient who is physically present in your office must feel like a VIP. Front office staff should greet patients in a welcoming voice as they walk in and make sure they are comfortable while they wait to go back. The way a patient is welcomed by front office staff sets the tone for the entire visit. If you say hello in a terse or distracted manner, or if you greet the patient briefly but then ignore them, you are communicating that patients are not valuable to your office. It’s also worth considering that a patient who feels annoyed or upset by their initial interaction with front office team will be more likely to feel tense or anxious while in the chair, which affects their experience of treatment planning and other clinical aspects of their visit. All of these factors can also make it more likely they will be resistant to discussing payment or insurance. In short, front office teams can either make it a great visit or one that is likely to go downhill fast.

  • Seating in operatory. This is an easy one to overlook, but it’s so important. Don’t just seat a patient in the chair and then leave without explanation. If you have to leave, tell them what you’ll be doing and how soon you’ll be back. Don’t seat the patient and then ignore them as you are right there beside them prepping the operatory. It’s fine to continue doing preparations around them, but be sure to acknowledge their presence. Patients have no idea what you are actually doing, so let them know you are setting up for their visit instead of letting them assume you are just doing random busywork. If the patient is in the mood to chat, follow their lead and make conversation. If they don’t want to talk, let them be quiet but also let your body language show that you know they are in the room. For many patients, these can be the most anxious moments of their visit, and you can be a calming and reassuring presence.

  • Interaction during procedures. Keep in mind throughout the procedure that you are treating a person, not just a mouth. Any small talk or conversation you engage in during the procedure with the doctor or other staff should be appropriate and should not make the patient feel like a silent “third wheel” since they are not able to contribute. Check in with the patient regularly to make sure they are doing okay and ask if they need anything. If it’s a long procedure, offer them something to do like listening to music, and be sure to offer rest breaks when that is an option. Always take the opportunity to explain what is happening in the procedure and let them know what will happen next. Give them encouragement that the procedure is half over or that there is just one more step to finish up—it’s easy to lose track of time in the chair and feel that a procedure is endless. Think about how the patient is doing and what they might need.

  • Immediately following procedures. After the patient is sitting up (not while they are still laying back in the chair), communicate with the patient about what happened today and any next steps that should happen. Make sure they look okay before walking them out of the operatory. Absolutely be sure to escort the patient personally to where they should go next, and when you get there, do a hand off to other staff rather than just abandoning them there. Continue making sure the patient feels heard and understood. Say “thank you for coming in” and show with your face and body language that you mean it!

There are many opportunities during the patient’s visit when we have a choice to make their visit amazing…or not. Regardless of whether the patient is in the waiting room, in the chair, in a consultation room, or on their way out the door, their presence is incredibly important to our office and we have a responsibility to affirm that to the patient.

Our patients may not remember exactly what treatment they had today, what the doctor said about the treatment plan, or when their next appointment is, but I guarantee the one thing they will absolutely remember is how you made them feel at the dental office that day. Everyone in every position in your office has the ability and the responsibility to make sure each patient leaves the office feeling confident that they have the best dentist around.