The second wave of COVID-19: what marketing preparations should be made?

Shaz Memon reveals eight key dental marketing tactics to help you survive a second wave this winterShaz Memon reveals eight key dental marketing tactics to help you survive this winter and a potential second wave.

We are living in uneasy times. Whilst the number of people known to be dying with coronavirus is in decline, we have all been warned that, without continued government intervention and the concerted efforts by all of us to remain vigilant, we are facing the prospect of another wave of COVID-19.

The dental profession has shown great resilience during the pandemic. This is despite the confusion caused by mixed messages from its regulators and government. But it will need to continue to do so in the face of further peaks of the disease.

We are already seeing epidemic ‘waves’ as winter approaches. The experiences of local lockdowns such as we’ve seen in Leicester, Bolton, Blackburn, the North and North West of England and so on will no doubt shape how others in the profession gear up to respond.

On 29 June, following a surge in coronavirus cases in Leicester, the government took localised action. It locked down the city and surrounding areas.

The city’s dentists were advised to ‘use their own clinical judgement on the additional measures they might want to take’. They were left to make their own decisions with regards the best options for patients. These patients seemingly didn’t have a clue what to expect when they tried to book an appointment.

As one dental nurse told back in July: ‘We have patients, old and new, banging the door expecting us to see them. When patients ring and we explain we cannot have anyone in the practice, they get angry. Then we have to deal with the verbal abuse they throw at us.’

Communication is all

Healthwatch England, the healthcare watchdog, unearthed some serious issues with communications during lockdown.

In a briefing published at the start of September, it revealed that: ‘Throughout the pandemic, we have heard about the difficulties of finding up-to-date information in the languages or formats people need. Especially when advice from the government was frequently changing.’

One of the major issues it reported was that ‘people did not know how to access emergency dental care – causing them extra stress while experiencing acute dental pain or other symptoms. Many others have felt they have no option but to go private if they want to receive treatment for what their dentist considered to be non-emergency treatment’.

And, whilst dentists are understandably more focused on getting their businesses moving again than anticipating upcoming events, the warnings are there.

One lesson is that communication is all. And not just between governing bodies and those at the ‘coal face’.

Channels between practice and patients need to be ramped up too. Early, with high frequency, as well as with transparency and clarity if dental businesses are to survive.

Digitally reach out

As the R rate rises and the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb, we are once again on the brink of tighter new controls on our lives with no end in sight to the disruption to services.

We may face a local lockdown or we may be on the brink of another, arguably more catastrophic, phase of this pandemic. But patients must be kept in the loop and have their needs met albeit in a virtual capacity.

This means dental teams need to think ahead in terms of how they might digitally reach out to ensure patients understand the implications of a change in status quo.

Clinically, how a new wave of the coronavirus affects you will very much depend on how your business has survived so far.

The new practice protocols any teams incorporated into their delivery of dentistry since March should help future proof their services going forward. Especially with regards patient pathways, clinical governance, PPE stock levels and the regulatory protocols in place to mitigate health risks.

Case studies

The new deputy chief dental officer for England, Jason Wong, and his team at Maltings Dental Surgery, in Grantham, for example introduced an iPad into their systems. While still using a runner nurse to collect patients from outside, they downloaded the practice software to an iPad. Runner nurses can view diaries, check patients in and instant message – a particularly important time-saver when every minute counts.

Meanwhile, James Goolnik and his team at Bow Lane Dental in the City of London are now offering a dental monitoring service with orthodontic treatment. This is alongside an opportunity to consolidate check-ups and hygiene appointments. And even an optional antibody test as part of a dental appointment.

This, they say, ‘may prove invaluable now in any scenario that requires consultations to continue to be handled safely remotely’.

The initial lockdown saw private practice Care Dental Platinum and its sister clinic, The Care Dental Practice (a mixed practice), launch complimentary virtual consultations (albeit it a little earlier than planned).

These online face-to-face Zoom communications were already in situ for their more phobic patients. But they were on offer to anyone in need of dentistry a semblance of the services they were being denied.

Virtual consultations

Run by Dr Bashar al Naher and his two daughters, clinical lead Safa and business development manager Sara, they have seen uptake rocket.

Sara explains: ‘We have found that our conversion rates have actually been higher since introducing virtual consultations. Patients want to make the most of working from home. Some find it the perfect time to straighten their teeth before returning to the office.

‘They have more time to come in for their appointments now. Or they have been thinking about changing their smile for a while and feel that it would be the best time to do it now in case of a second lockdown.

‘We aim to offer patients as many options as possible to make it easy for them to contact us. We have a 24/7 online chat service, a WhatsApp number, our practice numbers, email addresses, consultation forms on our website, a link for patients to upload smile selfies and our online booking system. Patients want to feel they can contact you with a quick response at any point during the day.’

Wide use of platforms

Digitally reaching out has also been essential regarding new protocols, too.

Sara says: ‘We have also made use of all platforms when talking to patients about safety measures. Social media is quick. It is really easy to post updates on stories on Instagram and Facebook for your audience to see the latest. We have made use of the Google My Business section. Here, we regularly post photos and updates, as most patients find us on Google.

‘We also regularly request patients to leave review about their experience. Most patients have recently mentioned feeling safe and secure at our practices with all the PPE we provide. This, in turn, gives other new patients faith that they can trust in our service.

‘We send out emails and texts to our database to inform them we are open and ready to see them for all treatments in a safe manner. We had a patient travel all the way from Scotland this week. She is coming back for more treatments because of our 5* reviews.’

‘It is also really important to remember to keep simple things in mind. For example, an outdoor pavement sign informing patients that you are open. It is surprising how many people still ask if we are open. Despite the number of signs, posts and website updates we have.

‘If you work on your marketing smartly, have a team who genuinely care about patients, target the correct audience with the appropriate messaging and you have photos, reviews and relevant information to show, patients will most certainly have the interest in booking a virtual consultation at minimum.’

Flexible approach

Seemingly then, the success of the overall patient experience may lie in less surgical matters. And, in some cases, this pandemic enhanced and reshaped practices’ digital activity to become more inclusive and diverse.

The pandemic has meant a more flexible approach to communications. Globally, we all have grown accustomed to building virtual relationships. They no longer feel an alien concept.

In an article published at entitled Mastering the online consultation, dentist Bhavin Bhatt noted: ‘As we continue to acclimatise to life with COVID-19, more of us – dentists and patients alike – will have become more comfortable with the idea of remote consultation.’

Indeed, a report by Align Technology on the effects of the pandemic on dental health suggests patients have been pleased with their virtual trips to the dentist. Nearly two out of three (64%) respondents admitted they would be happy to ‘see’ their dentist on a screen.

For those who have used a virtual clinic or phone consultation during lockdown, 97% and 94% were satisfied with their experience.

Digital marketing cements relationships. Any communications created with patients during lockdown should have continued when your doors reopened.

Amid all the headache of PPE, fallow time and AGPs, the responsibility to reassure, educate and guide patients on how any hiatus in their dental health care will be managed is essential for nurturing loyalty and trust.

New pathways

It is also vital to share with patients up-to-date news of any measures or protocols you have developed in the past few months that will protect them and offer a stress-free patient journey.

The smarter practice owner will seize the opportunities digital platforms offer. Interestingly, all three practices mentioned above shared their new pathways, contactless patient journeys and treatment options in social media posts, on local news websites as well as in the dental press.

Digital marketing is primarily about raising awareness of your business to get more patients through the door. But during lockdown, social media also offered dentists the chance to communicate with each other. It is also good for sharing best practice, lobbying government, and discussing innovation, knowledge and experiences.

Sharing knowledge has helped mankind evolve and makes the difference between survival and extinction. So why should dentistry be any different?

Eight key digital marketing strategies during COVID-19

Ramp up your digital activity

Clarify how patient can access dental care and explain what patients can expect in the case of a possible future lockdown. Continue sharing posts about all the fabulous treatments you offer. Keep them informed of any of the necessary changes in the practice. Consider creating a short video of the patient experience so they know what to expect.

Redefine your patient pathway in your communications

Complex treatments, smile makeovers and teeth straightening options can continue in a COVID-19 world. But patients need to be reassured what you are doing should there be an enforced break in care.

Make it personal

If you haven’t done already, post profiles of team members. Now more than ever patients will want to know the face behind the mask and a little more about who is treating them.

Ask for feedback

New patients always look for testimonials. These are like gold dust in a less stable world. Invite patients to share their thoughts on your COVID-19 protocols and how well you and your team are handling the risks.

Respond to patients with empathy, whatever they post

Patients have questions about your business. Ensure you make every effort to answer them empathetically, however challenging they might be. This is perhaps particularly important on social media. There, you have an audience and, therefore, an opportunity to showcase your practice ethos.

Pre-empt any queries if need be by posting COVID-19 FAQs in your social media posts, in patient e-newsletters or on your practice website. Just be careful not to inundate them with a whole raft of communications about the pandemic. Try to include more positive news. Add light to the darkness!

Stay on the ball with your optimisation

During this pandemic, what patients search for and what pages they are visiting may surprise you. They should influence your marketing messages and content so be sure to embrace those analytics!

Innovate ways to deliver dentistry – or aspects of it online

Complimentary virtual consultations are here to stay, which can only be a good thing. They can save chair time. And also ease the burden for patients who may not wish to travel in to see you until absolutely necessary.

Be clear about guidance

Few patients understood the restrictions dentists faced during lockdown. Should a second wave prevent you from working, be clear about the guidance you must follow and how ignoring these would mean serious consequences for you as a professional. Empathise and let patients know their options. Re-iterate how they can access emergency care should they need to.

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