Looking for new patients?… Just ask!

One of the biggest challenges to have emerged in the dental market over the past three years has been the need to attract more new patients. As a problem largely created by the economic downturn, attracting new patients is something that few dentists have ever needed to seriously consider. In the past, the general dental industry has, to a certain degree, been insulated from the effects of recessions, due in the main to the fact that a significant share of the market is effectively protected through necessity. In spite of this and for the first time, the recent recession did impact upon practice revenues, with patients delaying treatment or opting for lower-cost options.

However, as we now contemplate the emerging green shoots of recovery, some are asking whether the recession did in fact do the profession a bit of a favour, by concentrating attention on this very important aspect of running a successful practice.

With the new NHS pilots swaying towards some form of capitation-based remuneration, the need to attract more patients is now not only the preserve of the private sector. NHS and mixed practices should not consider themselves exempt from addressing how to effectively and efficiently ensure that a steady stream of new patients continues to walk through the door.

Happy patient referrals

Happy patients are undoubtedly the best referral source a practice can have and every practice should understand the value of their existing patients and have a strategy to encourage referrals from them. However, exploiting this source is not always as straightforward as one might expect and developing a referral procedure, the importance of which is understood by every member of the team, is key to maximising this source of new patients.

The key factor in introducing any scheme or protocol into your practice is that it needs to be rigorously applied, and to achieve this, direction needs to come ‘from the top’. If the team understands that certain processes have the backing of the owner/principal and that individuals’ performance will be monitored in regard to the success of the scheme, it is much more likely to succeed.

Once the team is clear about how the system will function and its significance in terms of overall practice success, the scheme must then be introduced to patients, a process that requires an effective communication effort. The most difficult aspect of maximising potential patient referrals is that patients need to know that you actually welcome referrals. Some practices, albeit subconsciously, often give the impression that they are so successful they have no room for new patients. To overcome this issue the dentist, or other nominated team member, must learn to recognise when a patient is satisfied with their treatment and then ask for the practice to be recommended to friends and family.

Traditionally dentists find this a difficult task, but often patients take the lead, by commenting on the finished result or the care they have received, and at this point the asking becomes relatively simple.

How to ask for referrals

If you or your team find it difficult to ask for patient referrals one method of overcoming this issue is to use referral cards. Referral cards are similar to business cards, containing practice details and other relevant information that can be passed from existing to potential patient and acting as traceable evidence that a referral has taken place. The cards can be handed out by the reception team at the end of a course of treatment and you will find that many patients only need a small nudge in the right direction to encourage a referral.

Some practices also use discount vouchers as a means of encouraging recommendation. These are given to patients on completion of treatment so that they can pass them on to friends and family to encourage a first visit. It is always worthwhile when creating referral cards or vouchers to work with a professional designer so that the design remains consistent with your practice ‘brand’ or image, making people more likely to keep and use them.

Thanking those who refer patients to you is also an important part of running any successful scheme. A letter or other appropriate 'thank you' should be considered, but dental professionals must be aware of the new GDC (General Dental Council) standards and devise schemes that always promote the best interests of the patient. In addition, any such scheme or incentive should be communicated to your relevant defence organisation in order to make sure you are within the remit of GDC guidelines.

The successful introduction of a referral scheme requires internal, as well as external communication. In order to make a scheme work, all members of the team need to know their role within it and understand the importance of its success. Possibly introducing an incentive scheme for staff may emphasise this point and providing constant updates in terms of how many new patients have been gained each month and from which source, is valuable information that should be shared at regular staff meetings. By formalising the process and encouraging 'buy-in' from your team, a referral scheme has a much better chance of becoming integrated into everyday practice life and is therefore much more likely to result in new patient referrals.

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