Great expectations – how to stem the tide of demanding patients

managing patient expectationsPractice Plan’s Louise Bone shares her top tips in managing growing patient expectations amidst the constraints of COVID-19.

This year we’ve faced an onslaught of unprecedented challenges that may forever change the way we practise dentistry.

Tackling each phase of COVID-19, from closing during lockdown to reopening and developing a new way to see your patients, has consumed day-to-day life of running a dental practice.

From your patients’ perspective now that you’re open again, their priority is to ensure their dental health hasn’t been adversely affected by lockdown.

They may also be more interested in undertaking cosmetic treatment. This is due to the introduction of new communication methods such as Zoom, making appearance more of a focus point.

So, some patients will look to book in as soon as they can.

If booking in all these appointments feels overwhelming, it may provide some comfort to know you’re not alone.

What’s more, there’s a simple three-step strategy that will help keep your patients happier. It will also help your team deal with those who are at risk of making a complaint if not dealt with swiftly.

1. Be open and honest

Your greatest strength as a dental practice is your relationship with your patients. They trust you as their healthcare provider.

As a profession, it’s important to remember that patients may not necessarily understand why they have to wait for their appointments.

Let them know in simple terms about the fallowing of surgeries. The triaging of emergency and priority patients, and the impact this has on appointment availability.

It’s easy to fall into the routine of telling patients what’s happening. For example, that you can’t book their appointment for a few weeks. But you’re not fully explaining why this is the case.

It’s an understandable occurrence. Particularly when you have a full day of tasks and calls to deal with.

Spending extra time with these patients to explain your circumstances plainly will save you time in the long run. Rather than dealing with follow-up calls from patients. Or worse, complaints from those who aren’t happy with waiting.

2. Communicate clear timeframes

One of the most triggering elements of communication is not giving a clear timeframe in which they will be seen. Or at least contacted with an update.

Understandably, this is quite a difficult area for practices across the UK to advise on due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the resulting code of practice, which is subject to change.

Team members may fall into the trap of agreeing to patient demands of shortened waiting times when it’s simply unrealistic to deliver. While it’s good to convey optimism to patients, it’s also vital to be a realist.

Saying ‘no’ is a daunting prospect. Particularly when you can foresee the dissatisfaction it might bring.

Try phrases that use positive language when patients are trying to push their agenda. Such as: ‘Unfortunately, due to the restrictions we’re under, we can’t currently offer an appointment any sooner. I can see you’re eager to book your appointment as soon as possible. If there’s an earlier appointment slot that becomes available, I’ll let you know.’

Here, you’ve validated your patient’s preference. You explained why you can’t facilitate that for them at present and also offered to do what you can to achieve what they want if the possibility arises. It’s not a flat ‘no’.

Obsequious communication is ultimately more damaging when it comes to a point that you can’t meet demand. So set their expectation from the outset clearly and concisely.

3. Follow up regularly

With the fluidity of the restrictions in place, it’s important for the team to keep patients informed of any changes that may affect them.

You can take this one step further simply by following up to see how patients are getting on. Let them communicate any issues or anxieties they’re having while they’re on the waiting list to see you.

It gives you the opportunity to pre-empt any problems. And it will impress your patients that you’re willing to go the extra mile to look after them.

Following up is a particularly important strategy for any patients that you feel are at risk of complaining. Or patients that perhaps weren’t satisfied after the first two strategies of communication when trying to book their appointment.

Make sure you’re still asking for feedback during this period. It is tempting to avoid this process during unprecedented times. Feedback may seem unreasonable or impossible to resolve. However, it may give you easy wins in terms of introducing new processes that help with patient experience.

The key to navigating patient expectations during these uncertain times is all about good communication and moving swiftly to prevent or deal with patient dissatisfaction.

Put processes in place to support your team in carrying out their duties so they understand what you expect from them.

You’ll be surprised at how reasonable your patients will be when time is taken to fully explain your situation and that you’re working hard to ensure you will see them as soon as possible.

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