Retrain patients to avoid appointment cancellations

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Most dental offices have a cancellation problem, and I take the risk of saying it’s our fault. The dental office teams have worked hard to teach patients that it is okay to cancel an appointment. The same people who will go out of their way to get to their hairdresser or for a nail appointment will call to cancel with their dentist at a moment’s notice. There are three ways we’ve made this happen, and luckily, we have the power to fix it.

First, dental teams don’t communicate the importance of the appointment when it’s scheduled. We need to remember what we do for a living. We put drills and needles in our patients’ mouths and then ask them to pay us for it. Think about it for a moment. What we are doing is not a lot of fun, and if patients can find a way out, they will.

When it’s time to schedule the next date, staff are often very casual about it. A team member offers the patient the option to plan, and when the patient refuses or says they will call to plan later, the team member, not wanting to be too pushy, responds with an “ok” . The words used by the team member over and over are timid. They want to be friendly and not overly arrogant, and with the patient pushing back, the employee often backs down.


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The second way we inadvertently encouraged the cancellation was the clinical team’s failure to support the front desk staff. Too often, the clinical team finishes with the patient and then drops them off at reception. Verbal communication between the clinical team and the front office team does not cover the importance of the need to schedule the next appointment. The patient does not see the transmission of information to schedule the next appointment, so attempts to exit the schedule once the clinical team member is out of earshot. Remember, we put drills and needles in their mouths. Many patients will find a way to avoid this if they can.

Finally, we make it too easy to cancel or reschedule at the last minute. Our patients will not cancel with their hairdresser because they know that if they do, it will be a long time before they can be scheduled again. They know there is a sense of urgency to show up, and they go out of their way to do so. Their dental appointment, on the other hand, is much easier to cancel. Often times, even though the office charges a fee, the fee is waived, and we share the many openings available to try and fill the schedule. On top of that, many offenders reprogram multiple times, and dental staff continue to allow this to happen.

The good news is that these issues can be resolved with training and good communication. The first step is to improve the verbal skills used with patients. This will help dental team members feel confident in their ability to work with patients. Then the team should work on the transfers and verbal skills with each other in front of the patients. Office staff should work together to develop a planning policy and ensure that the whole team applies it consistently. Then it’s time to walk and talk. Let patients know in a friendly, professional and controlled manner that in the future they will be required to adhere to the planning policy. If they continue to cancel, especially at the last minute, they may no longer have the ability to plan ahead with the office. When patients realize that the practice is following and respecting their scheduling policy, they will learn to do the same.

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