See you in six months: The hygienist’s role in getting the patient back

If there is one thing that is taught (or at least should be taught) to dental patients at a young age, it’s the importance of visiting the dental practice every six months for a check-up.

To those of us in the dental industry, it seems like such common sense, right? Periodic exams are necessary for tracking patients’ oral health. However, we also know that visiting the dentist is not always at the top of a patient’s mind.

How are dental practices doing with getting their patients in for their six-month recall appointments? We recently extracted data from Sikka Software’s collection of numbers that has been collected from more than 12,500 dental practices from around the United States during the past seven-plus years. Here are the numbers of periodic exams per month, per practice:

  • 2010—51.67
  • 2011—50.75
  • 2012—50.42
  • 2013—50.5
  • 2014—50.92
  • 2015—53.17
  • 2016—54.83

The good news is that, after plateauing for the first five years of our study, the number of periodic exams has gone up slightly in recent years. While the increase may not be large, an additional three or four periodic exams per month can not only make an impact on your bottom line but also show that your practice’s message of the importance of oral health is being heard.

 

What are some tips that can help any dental practice ensure that patients are coming back in for their six-month checkups? We asked Sandy Pardue, senior consultant with Classic Practice Resources and nationally known speaker, for her thoughts.

“Practices tend to process the patients, treating everyone the same,” Pardue said. “It goes back to adding value and customizing the verbal skills to that patient’s mouth and needs.

“This seems like a simple answer, but there's so much more to it. I hear some hygienists talking to the patient and educating, but it's not happening enough. They need to show the patient what is happening in their mouth, utilize photography, utilize the intraoral camera to educate and talk about what will happen if they don't come back and if they don't keep up with their follow up visits.

“Every hygienist should be pre-scheduling the patients and again, not just processing them. They need to add value and tell them how those future visits will benefit them. Patients have to see the benefits, or they will fall in the cracks. Practices need to remember that less than 50 percent of the public are even going to the dentist on a regular basis. We have a lot of work to do.”

I asked Pardue about the importance of the hygiene department in the scheduling of six-month appointments. She talked about that, and then brought up a part of the appointment that many practices are still having problems talking about.

“I have discovered in several practices that are experiencing a lot of broken appointments in hygiene that the hygienist made the appointment without communicating the day and time to the patient in the chair,” Pardue said. “He or she was simply processing people. When you do that, the practice not only loses control over the schedule, but the patients also can't see the value of that visit.

“Then the other thing I notice is, I don't hear all dentists and hygienists mention ‘oral cancer screening’ to the patients on a regular basis. Many aren't talking about risk factors. Patients go to the dentist and expect to learn the status of their oral health. We need to do a better job delivering that.”

And what is Pardue’s parting point of advice to practices?

“I did some research a few years back. I work with practices on patient retention, so I was curious about the last visit to practices,” Pardue said. “What was the most common last visit before they said they were never coming back? It was a hygiene visit, being diagnosed with perio. Never underestimate the power of good communication and patient education.”

An advocate of today’s dental assistant, Kevin Henry speaks to dental audiences across the nation on topics that empower dental assistants, helping them recognize the leadership role they hold in the dental practice. He is the cofounder of IgniteDA.net, a community designed to enlighten, empower, and educate dental assistants.

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