The challenge of new patient acquisition
Did you know that 60% of dentists are unaware of the number of lapsed patients in their practice, 40% don’t track where new patients come from and 30% are unaware of how many new patients visit their practice each month. These are just a few of the startling statistics revealed in Software of Excellence’s (SOE’s) latest white paper, Facing the Challenge of New Patient Acquisition that has brought the importance of new patients as a trigger for growth into sharp focus.
The challenge of new patient acquisition is one that faces almost every dentist in the world, and in the face of an increasingly competitive market it is likely to be one of the biggest issues facing ‘high street’ practices in the UK over the next decade.
The recession bites
Dentists are all too aware of the impact the global recession has had on the industry in the last five years, with postponed appointments and some patients not attending altogether. According to the Office for National Statistics the UK emerged from the double-dip recession in October 2012 and since, trade has continued to improve and unemployment rates have fallen.
The British Chambers of Commerce’s chief economist, David Kern, predicts that in 2015/2016 the economy will continue to grow: ‘As the economic climate has improved, and as confidence has slowly returned to UK businesses, there is an upsurge in people who are now more willing to invest and expand.’ And in terms of sectors, ‘the main contributor to UK growth in the next three years will be services.’
In order to take advantage of these improved conditions, dentists need to be aware of their practice data with regard to new patients. Information such as how many new patients each dentist acquires per month, how many are needed to maintain and grow the practice, what resources are used to attract new patients and the relative success of each. All these metrics are important indicators of a practice’s likely success.
The demanding patient
Business solutions expert, SOE, has spent the last seven years collating data from more than 1,500 UK practices that has given them an insight into what constitutes an efficient practice. With this in mind, SOE has turned its attention to the topic of new patient acquisition and produced a white paper that investigates which strategies can be best employed to increase patient numbers in today’s competitive world.
The report found evidence of a change in attitude amongst the profession and identified the need for a strategic approach from practitioners: ‘With increasing optimism about the future, attitudes towards growth are also changing. The previous focus of reducing costs, contraction and maintenance is fading and there is now a willingness to embrace new opportunities and employ expansion strategies. For practices that have traditionally not needed to work very hard to attract patients, the emergence of a new, more discerning breed of customer who demands not only high-quality treatment but also high-quality surroundings and service, represents a new challenge.’
Perception and reality
The white paper suggests that practitioners need to be more proactive and should consider implementing a ‘best practice’ strategy to coordinate their quest to attract more new patients. One of the striking pieces of data uncovered in the research is the extent to which dentists underestimate the need for new patients.
On average, dentists think they need to attract 16 new patients per month per dentist to maintain steady growth, yet on average the majority of practices actually achieved a total of 11 new patients per dentist, per month – highlighting a clear shortfall between perception and reality. Those practices achieving most success in attracting new patients, on average gained 18 new patients per dentist per month thanks to the employment of various marketing strategies and their in-depth knowledge of their practice data. This is a sharp contrast to the significant number (28%), of the general cohort who did not know how many new patients were needed to expand their practice.
Similarly, lapsed patient numbers was another underestimated area. When asked to estimate the number of lapsed patients within their practice the average figure was 249. However, data gathered from practice systems showed the actual average number of lapsed patients per dentist to be 345. This figure is significant, not only because of the wide underestimation of this problem but also because it highlights the extent to which practices are effectively missing out on ‘new business’ from their existing database.
Promoting your practice
Researchers surveyed a range of practices to find out more about how they promoted their business, the processes used to acquire new patients and how the analysis of data such as the number of lapsed patients and marketing patterns could help drive ‘best practice’.
Almost all of the practices that took part in the survey said that word of mouth referrals were the most effective way to generate new patients, with search engines and practice websites also proving popular. Surprisingly, despite the huge increase in the use of social media in the last two years, only 25% of the respondents used this as a method of attracting new patients. It was noted, however, that those most successful in attracting new patients have a higher propensity to use social media as part of their overall strategy.
The report states: ‘Market experience tells us that this is an area of growth and it is one that is considered more important by those practices who attract higher than the average number of new patients per month.’
Spending on marketing also proved to be a factor in the level of new patient acquisition. 61.5% of practices in the UK spend up to £2,500 per year on promoting their practice, however the data showed that those practices spending just slightly more than average are more successful when it comes to attracting new patients.
The dental industry landscape has changed significantly over the past five years and with more changes planned including reorganisation of NHS contracts, practices will need to become more knowledgeable and inventive about how they attract new patients. Using patient referral incentives, increasing online presence, integrating online booking and in particular developing a coordinated marketing strategy, are all important levers for success.
Attracting new patients is not only about promoting services, although this is an important aspect of the marketing mix. It is also about identifying available capacity, understanding which types of patient will grow your practice, ensuring patients who are interested in your practice are able to book appointments at a time and place that’s convenient to them, and maintaining the delicate balance between new and existing patients.
Use your own tools
In order to be successful practices must appreciate the value of the data held within their practice systems and use this to increase their knowledge and make informed decisions. By following a series of steps and using a variety of tools, practice growth can be initiated and by monitoring the relative effectiveness of these marketing tools dentists can take advantage of the opportunities that are on the horizon.
The ability to attract appropriate numbers of new patients will ultimately ensure a balanced treatment offering and the optimum ratio of new to existing patients. This approach proposes a holistic view of a practice’s activity and one that will have a positive impact on stability and future growth.
To download SOE’s white paper, Facing the Challenge of New Patient Acquisition, please visit www.softwareofexcellence.com/uk/newpatients.