In a recent article I talked about the importance of always having someone available to answer the phone in your practice during lunch, since that is a time when many patients are likely to have an opportunity to call.This raised an interesting question from a reader, who left a comment saying:

 I started staggering lunch breaks also but found that we were short one person for everything else going on in the office both before and after lunch. So the patients in the office were lacking the VIP treatment sometimes. Any suggestions?

It’s a good question that addresses a common reality, especially in smaller practices with limited staff resources. Someone is assigned to answer phones during the 12 o’clock hour and then you find you are missing them when things get busy after 1 pm, when they are out to lunch.

When you think about it, there really is no possible way to always have the ideal staff strength to manage all the peaks and valleys in a typical day. Sometimes, you’ll have slow periods where team members have to busy themselves with other duties because the immediate patient demand just isn’t there. More often, it will feel like you could use an additional two or three people just to keep up.

When things get hectic around the office and resources are short, it has always been my advice that the patient in front of you comes first. If you give priority to the patient on the phone, you run the risk of having the one in front of you walk out without paying for treatment or booking their next appointment. When this happens, it will require more follow-up with that patient later. Or that patient in front of you waiting for you to complete the call will feel neglected and ignored, which has all kinds of serious implications for the relationship.

Sometimes it’s necessary to let calls get the answering message, but that message should not be just a generic “we are not available” advisory. Explain in your outgoing message that you are busy serving patients, ask them to leave the best number to reach them and promise that you will absolutely get back to the caller within the hour. And make sure you deliver on that promise.

In other words, sometimes not being able to answer a call is unavoidable. However, the important thing is that we are talking about patient calls only being directed to voicemail sometimes, as opposed to having a prime time where all patient calls are automatically routed to a robot.

And while we are on the topic, there was another interesting comment left on that article, from a dentist who likes to surprise patients from time to time by picking up the phone herself:

I often do this if I’m near the phone during lunch, or happen to pass through the business office when the receptionist is with another patient. Patients are amazed to find me caring so much about them that I don’t want their call to go to voicemail. It really isn’t an inconvenience to me at all, and patients love it. I only stay on the phone long enough to hear their concern, take a message, or pass them off to the receptionist, but I leave them feeling very important to us.

What a wonderful idea, and a great of example of doing what it takes to keep the lines of communication open in the practice. Sometimes those lines may be busy, and sometimes it is inevitable that a patient will have to wait. But those lines should never be closed during business hours.


Commenter's Profile Image Kristin
August 23rd, 2013
Our office doesn't take a lunch. Instead we work through our day and allow each member of the staff to take breaks as appropriate. We then have a support staff member who staggers their day, (either early or late depending on that days schedule,) who answers phones and works recall.
Commenter's Profile Image Sandra Calleros
August 23rd, 2013
Kristin, you must NOT work in California then. Lunches of at least 30 min after 5 hours are the law.
Commenter's Profile Image Pam DiTomasso
August 25th, 2013
I agree with the staggering. All our staff staggers their lunch from 11:30 to 1pm and we take a 30min lunch to accommodate pts. who want to come in on their lunch hour. This covers both front and back staffing needs. in addition staff knows it may change on a moments notice to again accommodate a pt. or our production goals. NO ONE ever goes without lunch (yes in the litigiousness state of California).