Implementing virtual consultations in practice

virtual consultationJaswinder Gill discusses remote dentistry and explains how to implement virtual consultations into your practice.

When the first lockdown started back in March 2020, I decided that I wanted to stay in touch with my patients as much as possible during this period as I knew they would need me.

We are a mixed practice and therefore immediately put the triage service in place. What we did was offered all patients advice, analgesia or antimicrobials as required. We diverted our phone line and manned during the normal surgery hours. On top of this, we had a virtual receptionist service (Moneypenny) for evenings and weekends.

We also increased our marketing two-fold: because everyone else stopped, it was cheaper. In addition, we increased the frequency of our newsletter from monthly to weekly. American industrialist Henry Ford famously said: ‘A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time’.

On top of this, we decided to offer virtual consultations (VCs, as I call them now) via Zoom with anyone who needed to speak to a dentist. These could be booked free of charge from our website using an online calendar (we used Acuity Scheduling). This would dictate the times we would be available. I made sure I made myself available a few hours every day for this.

Implementation

Virtual consultations are so easy to implement, even if you don’t have a website. Everyone now has access to Zoom, which is free, and most people have overcome any security issues. You can also start off with the free version of Acuity but add extra features for a more premium package.

From here, you can add a link to any form of digital marketing that you do, including in all your socials. It really is as simple as that. What’s more, Zoom and Acuity are both fully GDPR compliant.

After the first few weeks, I realised that word was getting round. We received calls from patients from other practices too.

We continued to provide this service and saw that these patients remained committed to us once the lockdown was over.

Patients like to have a choice and this is exactly what a VC provides. It’s my experience that patients love them – they also remember who took care of them in their time of need.

Smilemate

We also started noticing an increase in interest from private patients that were at home. They were spending more time online, not going on holiday/restaurants/entertainment and therefore had more disposable income. This was an ideal opportunity for this growing group of patients to have an ‘initial chat’ with me regarding their private options.

What made this period even better was the advent of Smilemate. This allowed the patient to take photos of their teeth using their own smartphone and send them to me. The software would then generate a report using artificial intelligence that I could check and send to the patient, and all this would happen before the VC. I could then discuss the problems and present a solution.

It is important to mention here that a VC doesn’t replace a clinical examination at all; it is an adjunct to it, but it does give the patient a more convenient choice. You are also not confirming a diagnosis. You can only do this after a full clinical examination.

VCs are a not a new thing: GPs have been doing them for many years, but dental patients are moving this way, streamlined by COVID-19 – just ask any Amazon or Deliveroo delivery driver how much more time people are spending online.

What happened next?

When the first lockdown ended, we thought we would stop doing VCs and things would return back to normal, but as we well know now, that didn’t happen. Fallow time and the extra PPE requirements came in. We found that our patients fell in to three categories:

  1. Emergency patients whom we saw and had been waiting over lockdown
  2. Recall patients who were reluctant to come in but had the choice of a VC
  3. Recall patients who were happy to be seen.

But then another category, which began in lockdown and has since not stopped growing, cropped up: the private patients who want to start treatment but would like a VC first, as they are given a choice. This category now represents more than 90% of our VCs.

We also found that, as patients didn’t initially have to travel in, we could market to more than double the area, so cast a bigger net.

Managing Relationships

It has become so busy that we use a customer relationship management (CRM) tool to manage all of our leads today; we use Dengro. We even had to hire a TCO (we prefer to call her a patient care coordinator) and I have now trained her to do all of the VCs, as I would have no time to see any patients if I carried on doing all my own VCs.

I found many benefits to this, including:

  • Frees up my time: the TCO is able to carry on nurturing leads in between video consultations and DNAs
  • More approachable/relatable: people often feel uncomfortable or intimidated by a dentist yet feel more at ease and able to be more open and frank with a TCO
  • Less clinical advice leaves them wanting for more. Given the TCO can’t provide full and frank clinical summaries, it segues well into encouraging the patient to book for the face-to-face
  • More capability: given the TCO is responsible for the nurture process, they are able (and facilitated) to schedule in call-backs etc right then and there. A dentist would have to end the call and pass the memo on before it gets actioned
  • Demographic. I am not condoning positive discrimination etc, but there is definitely a benefit to having a TCO who matches the demographic of your target market. If your target audience is met by a TCO who is a similar age, for example, they relate better and are more likely to have things in common (enhances rapport).

Not if but when

I am writing this when England is in ‘lockdown: part three’; I’m hoping by the time you read this, it will nearly be over!

But one thing is for sure, now that patients have had a whiff of VCs, they will always want to have the choice.

We still have patients booking directly for a private clinical consultation (about a third), the rest come in after a VC. This saves so much of my clinical time; much of the work has already been done. My nurse does the scan and photos when they come in, I just perform the clinical exam.

In the not too distant future, I can also see getting patients to register for a group webinar where we can explain the treatment, show examples, answer questions, explain all payment options and any special offers, and next steps could be a personal VC or a clinical consultation.

When it comes to offering VCs, it’s not a question of if, but when. Because if you don’t, your competitor down the road will be… and your patients will be on their appointment book, because they would have given them a choice.

Virtual consultations

Jas’s top tips

  • Start by giving yourself 45 minutes for each one. It’s better to have more time than to feel rushed at the end. Ours are 30 minutes now
  • A Smilemate done beforehand will virtually guarantee that the patient is keen to go ahead
  • Always send them a text reminder one day before and on the day to reduce the level of did not attends (DNAs)
  • Introduce yourself at the beginning of the virtual consultation and explain what will happen
  • Explain the objective, which is to book a clinical examination
  • Spend at least five to 10 minutes building rapport. Don’t talk about teeth!
  • Ask open-ended questions about their concern; it’s important to find the emotional reasons
  • Go through the Smilemate photos
  • Present your solution
  • It’s useful to have a Powerpoint ready of a few slides explaining the next steps, some before and afters, your credibility (USPs), any special offers you have running, payment options etc
  • Don’t forget to close by booking a clinical examination appointment during the virtual consultation, this can be done on Exact. We charge a £25 deposit for this and payment can also be made online during the virtual consultation; we use Stripe
  • Thank them for attending.

Products used

Smilemate: Dental Monitoring

Dengro: Dengro

Exact: Software of Excellence

This article first appeared in Clinical Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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