We are certainly living in uncharted times, as most of us (if not all) have never experienced a period when the World Health Organization, the federal government and the American Dental Association have all requested dentists to close their offices. The COVID-19 crisis has caused numerous implications and the altering of the dental industry business landscape.
These times require us to be strategic in the way we handle a myriad of matters, because our business operation has been abruptly halted for reasons beyond our control and our patients’ lives have also been affected, resulting in not only potential health consequences, but financial repercussions.
Since we lack certainty regarding the precise time frame we will be dealing with before we can fully reestablish our operational capabilities, we need to allocate some time to reach out to our patients and be consistent and goal-oriented with our communication.
We see our patients every six months under ideal circumstances but based on the current COVID-19 crisis there is a good chance that it may take us a bit longer to see many in our office. In some cases, this means that patient's dental condition may deteriorate. In other cases, it means they still need to maintain their dental health.
If we strategize our communication with our patients, we can single out three main objectives:
- Reducing patient anxiety
- Maintain engagement and trust
- Increasing future case acceptance
Reducing patient anxiety
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we all need to be cognizant that stress during an infectious disease outbreak can cause:
- Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
Patients should know that your dental team is extremely aware and vigilant of these behaviors since they may well have oral/dental repercussions. Reaching out to them with a word of caution will help them out.
Maintain engagement and trust
During these difficult times, patients need to know and feel that we are looking after them, and that we care. Many patients realize that dentists are business owners, and as such will also struggle during times where there is no production, no income and the fixed overhead is extremely high.
Making the time to reach out and give patients a few guidelines for home care and some common-sense precautions that they are not fully aware of during this period of time could unquestionably be very well received, strengthen our bond and maintain patient loyalty. For example, you can recommend staying away from eating hard foods, avoiding high sugar intake and limiting the amount of acidic beverages.
Reaching out to our patients via email, with simple visuals like in Figure 1 and straightforward captions and recommendations can help them remember the importance of paying attention to their oral health and reduce their anxiety.
SPEAR IS HERE TO HELP: Dentists must stand together in these remarkably challenging times. Explore Spear Online's team training resources, video lessons, Patient Education multimedia and clinician-only Spear Talk discussion forum for information to safeguard your practice and address patient needs once the COVID-19 crisis settles.
Increasing future case acceptance
This crisis will someday be over. When it is, we better be ready to compensate for the loss of time, the high expenditures and lack of income.
Having our patients away from the dental practice for some time gives us a great opportunity to reconnect with them, and in a way “treat them as if they were new patients,” instead of assuming we know them so well to say that they are not interested in specific treatments, perhaps based solely on the fact that they were not interested in the past.
Our job should consist of succinctly conveying patients with our clinical and radiographic findings, and clearly laying out the consequences of inaction.
Let me digress for a second and call your attention to the following example: Why does someone choose to go to the gym?
Well, some of us may choose to go to the gym to lose weight and look better while others go to the gym to maintain their health. While the goals are different, both end up being compatible.
Moreover, years ago I wrote a Spear Digest article titled “Treatment Planning: Optimizing Results and Case Acceptance by Utilizing the Buyer’s Journey” in which I describes three distinctives elements of such journey: awareness, consideration and decision.
As clinicians, we can easily come across as biased toward a certain treatment plan and/or clinical outcome, and we may recommend therapy that perhaps does not make sense to a patient based on their own biases. Therefore, we need to get strategically consistent with our communication, so we can aspire to communicate a more “universal” message.
The problem is that not all patients understand our explanations and sometimes we do not explain things with the same clarity.
There is a term among business consultants known as “the curse of knowledge.” This is a common cognitive bias that occurs when an individual communicates unknowingly with the assumption that others have the background to understand. This is extremely common in dentistry, and clinicians fall in this trap more often than we care to admit.
An amazing tool to overcome the negative effect of such curse of knowledge is having the patient watch animated Patient Education videos. The library of animated Patient Education videos available to Spear Online members convey just the right amount of information in layman’s terminology, typically in a highly visual presentation of two minutes or less, which allows the patient to grasp accurate knowledge regarding their condition. Videos can easily be emailed to patients or shared via text message, including with options for customization and specific annotations.
There are nearly 200 videos in the Patient Education library that the dental team can use to provide the patient with such information, which helps them make better personal care decisions.
Being able to strategically choose the right video to depict a patient's condition allows us to either reinforce what was discussed during their latest appointment, or at least “plant a seed” in the patient's mind not only as far as awareness goes. It also gives the dental team an opportunity to remind the patient of the potential consequences of inaction.
Whether your goal is reducing patient anxiety, maintaining engagement, building trust or increasing future case acceptance, reaching out to patients in times of crisis will unquestionably be well received.
The overarching message is that you and your practice cares for their well-being.
Ricardo Mitrani, D.D.S., M.S.D., is a member of Spear Resident Faculty.