Content Dam Rdh Print Articles Volume37 Issue4 1704rdh C1

Save a seat: Here are some strategies for squeezing in the late dental patients

April 1, 2017
Dianne Watterson, RDH, offers her reasons for going ahead and treating the tardy dental patients.


Dear Dianne,

I’ve been having a tremendous problem with late-arriving patients, and most of them are chronically late. Years ago, we had a different receptionist, and she seemed to have a better way to deal with late arrivers.She would always point it out to them, so at least they knew we weren’t OK with it.

Now we have two new receptionists who do nothing, so the problem has become chronic and daily. Do you have any suggestions or strategies I could pass on to my boss as to what he might have them say to these late patients?

Lynn, RDH

Dear Lynn,

One late patient can throw a serious kink in the schedule. So let’s look at the issue of late arrivers.

First, I believe there are two categories of late patients: 1) those who are chronically late, and 2) those who are late through no fault of their own. Chronically late people are late for everything, including their mother’s funeral. I think it’s a mindset that some people have, and it is their “normal.”

One key to controlling chronic tardiness involves a definitive business desk strategy. First, people who are chronically late have to be identified as such so that any time their name pops up, the business assistant or hygienist knows. It’s not enough to just try to remember who these people are. History usually repeats itself. So if a patient is late more than once, that patient needs to be marked.

There are various ways to mark people, depending on the software. But one way is to place a definitive keystroke after the patient’s name or a pop-up that appears when the patient’s name is entered. Another way is the have the patient’s name show up in a special color. Quick identification is the key.

Another business strategy is in communicating the appointment time to the patient. If the appointment is scheduled at 10 a.m., the patient would be told 9:45 a.m. Be sure to indicate in the schedule that the patient has been told to come at 9:45 a.m. rather than 10 a.m. so any automated reminder systems can be overridden.

Someone needs to call the patient manually and convey a reminder that says 9:45. Here’s a sample call: “Hi Mrs. Smith, this is Lisa at Dr. Wall’s office. Our schedule indicates you have reserved time with our hygienist at 9:45 tomorrow, May 5. We are looking forward to seeing you then.”

A third strategy is in how we communicate our disdain for their lateness. Obviously, we have to be tactful and graceful. One way is to say “Oh, I’m so glad you made it! We were worried that something had happened to you since you are late!” This needs to be said just as soon as the late patient arrives by business assistants and can be used by hygienists when taking the patient back.

In the past, I felt it was appropriate to dismiss late-arriving patients and merely reschedule the appointment. Some offices even have policies, such as if the patient arrives 20 minutes or more later than the scheduled time, the patient will be reappointed. It is not a very “patient-friendly” policy. Put yourself in the patient’s position. If you were a patient of record with a history of being on time, and you arrived late for your appointment through no fault of your own (possibly road work or a traffic snarl), only to be told, “We won’t be able to see you…,” would you be happy? What if you had gotten off work or moved other mountains to get there? I expect it would make me very angry to be turned away, simply because I was late and most assuredly, I’d find another dental home.

My position now is this. Take the “warm body” every time, even if there is only 10 minutes left. Seat the patient and do something. If you only have time to take BWs and do an exam, then so be it. Say to the patient, “We’re so glad you made it. Come on back and let’s do what we can in the time we have left.”

With this statement, you are letting the patient know that his/her time has been compromised, but all is not lost. If you need to postpone something until the next visit, just do it. It won’t harm the patient to dispense with the polishing, so if the patient had little or no stain, I would say, “Great news - you have no stain, so we can dispense with the polishing today.” If you need to bring the patient back for completion, just do it with a shorter appointment time. If the doctor is delayed for the exam, dispense with that as well, or reappoint the patient in the doctor’s schedule.

So, prioritize what is most important to do with the time you have. Obviously, you can’t do everything you had planned to do with, say, half the time you have now, but you can do something.

If a patient was on the doctor’s schedule to have three restorations, and the patient was late, I doubt the doctor would send the patient away with no treatment. Instead, the doctor would complete only one or two restorations and reappoint for the third restoration.

There is one more important concept to remember when it comes to the issue of promptness. Generally, patients will respect our time in the same manner we respect their time. If you are consistently late seating people, they will see no problem in making you wait. The patient’s time is just as important as our time.

I’ve seen hygienists who are late arriving to work, so that means they are late seating their first patient of the day. That usually means a pattern of lateness over the course of the whole morning. Some of the other reasons hygienists run late are:

  • Disorganization
  • Doctor keeps them waiting
  • Too much chit chat
  • Wasting time in between patients on social media
  • An overbooked schedule

As you can see, there are many reasons a hygienist might run late, including late arriving patients. However, there are some good strategies for dealing with patients who are chronic late-arrivers. You need skilled communicators at the business desk and a quick identification method for the chronically late. Plus, the hygienist has to learn how to prioritize his/her time and use time to its best efficiency. After all, time is our most valued commodity.

All the best,



DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, is an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, and two books. Dianne’s new DVD on instrument sharpening is now available on her website at under the “Products” tab. Visit her website for information about upcoming speaking engagements. Dianne may be contacted at (336) 472-3515 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Keeping the workflow despite the late patient

Here’s the main reason I urge you to seat the patient and use whatever time you have. There is always the outside chance that the next patient won’t show up. So, if you send the late patient packing, and your next patient no-shows, now you’ve lost two appointments.

If you had just seated the patient that did show up, albeit late, at least you would only lose one appointment, plus you will have time to complete the patient. It’s a lucky break for the late-arriver.

It’s smart business on your part.