“I don't know if I can afford it” is one of the main patient objections practitioners have always had to overcome. That's why demonstrating value for treatment and explaining funding options has always been an important part of the skill set for you and your team. And those skills are going to be put to the test through practice recovery from the public health crisis.
In that new reality you are going to be seeing three types of patients:
First, there will be patients who need urgent care but have suffered real economic hardship during the crisis and are unable to pay. For those patients you will simply have to do the work with an understanding that they can pay later when they get back on their feet. In some appropriate cases, you might even just do the work as a courtesy. There is a lot to gain in goodwill by taking this approach.
Secondly, you are going to see many returning patients – some who are in the middle of a treatment plan – who were not financially impacted by the pandemic and are still economically sound but who nevertheless are suffering from a sort of “crisis hangover.” That's where they have a kind of psychological roadblock as result of the recent uncertainty that makes them reluctant to make significant financial commitments of any kind. Those are the patients you are going to have to work hard with to create the right value and restore their mind-readiness to move forward with treatment.
Finally, believe it or not, there will be patients who are actually more inclined to want comprehensive treatment. These are the people who are going to emerge from this crisis with a new perspective on life and a new sense of urgency for doing the things they always wanted to do, such as getting that perfect smile they've dreamed about.
By asking the right filtering questions and having the right conversations, you will be able to determine each patient's mindset and current profile.
So, knowing that this new reality is coming, it makes sense to take the time now to re-evaluate your financial policies and perhaps look at opening up new avenues for helping patients fund treatment, even if it is for a limited time.
The three areas to think about are:
Policies and communication
Every practice should have a clearly written financial policies document. If you don't, or what you have is outdated or insufficient, now is the time to create a policy guideline that provides the most complete and up-to-date information. And make sure you and the team are ready to communicate those new financial options, based on what you learn about the patient's current situation and mindset.
I know many practices like to take a “hands off” approach to financing options. They prefer to carefully outline the patient's care needs and fee obligations, and then leave it up to the patient to seek out and secure financing if they need it.
There can be sound reasons for taking that route under usual circumstances. But as you come back, you are in a different economic landscape, where patients are more likely to be looking for payment over time options, and you may want to take a closer look at the offerings of third-party lenders and how you can work with them, in the interests of getting patients back on track with their oral health.
Remember, even patients who have significant personal means may not be in a cash flow position that makes it possible for them to write a check up front, in full, for the treatment they know they need. For many of these patients, the offer of six months, 12 months, or more that most of the lenders offer can be very attractive. It could end up being the difference between “I'll think about it” and “let's do it.”
Assisted self-financing and internal financing
These are options that many practices get involved with reluctantly, which is understandable because it does come with the greatest risk. But it is a measured risk. Assisted self-financing is really just spreading out payments over the course of a treatment plan, but it feels like financing to the patient because it fits things into the context of their monthly budget.
In the new landscape we are entering, I suggest you consider extending the payments well beyond the treatment schedule; in other words, if the treatment is being performed over the course of six months, consider spreading the payments over the course of 12 months. That way, by the time you have completed treatment, you have covered your costs.
Another option is to offer a layaway plan, where patients who are not in an emergency situation can make monthly payments until your costs are covered, and then you begin treatment.
And remember that the default rate on loans like this is lower than most people imagine. Besides, if you are going to have down time anyway, why not fill as much time as possible doing work that could build up a lot of goodwill with patients and referrers. I don't believe in taking a lot of risks in business, but I believe this is a good risk to take, as long as you are selective with who you make these offers to, based on the profile of the patient and the doctor who referred them.
Here's one more thing to keep in mind as we look ahead to how we prepare for the new reality: As we all know, dental conditions don't heal themselves. If left untreated, they only get worse. Which means that as you return to full operations, you could soon find yourself with a pent-up demand for care, and you want to be ready to help get those appointments in the schedule.
The bottom line is, if treatment is needed or treatment is wanted, there should be a way to make it work economically. In the new reality, that may involve getting creative, but remember that helping patients is what you were born to do. And part of helping patients get the care they need is showing them how they can afford to do it.
Imtiaz Manji is co-founder and chairman of Spear Education. Discover more of his practice management and leadership lessons at speareducation.com/everythingimtiaz .