Hygienists play key role in an office’s transition
by Bonnie Ripin, RDH
A successful office requires a team that operates without much interference, yet there are times when change is inevitable. The average age at which a dentist retires is 64.1 The most common scenario is that the doctor transfers his or her patients or practice to another dentist that is ready to step in and begin treatment.
When change of ownership occurs, there is a high risk of losing some patients to another office. As a result, office production will decrease when patients leave. The majority of a practice’s patients function on a recall system with the hygienist, and routinely return for cleanings and exams twice a year. Therefore, a hygienist’s role is expanded to include the responsibility of maintaining a solid patient pool during challenging times. The key ways to remain trustworthy to your patients are to value customer service, recognize where they stand as clients, and maintain effective communication.
Customer service is often seen as the measure of a practice’s ability to provide a service in the way it has been promised. According to national data, the average practice treats 1,900 active patents.2 When a patient that has been consistently treated every six months with no complications from the previous dental team is seen by the new doctor, he or she will expect the same treatment. To ensure this, customer service should be approached as a team effort. Each member of the office should focus on assisting the patient with a smooth transition. An excellent way to initiate this is with an informative letter that describes the change of ownership and the effective dates. This letter should be sent to all active patients and reassuringly state that the same hygiene team will remain in place. The purpose is to encourage patients to continue scheduling, to expect that their recall appointments will continue as planned, and to calm any fears that often accompany change.
People that enter the practice door have made a choice to let your team treat them. This choice must be respected and acknowledged by the dental staff. Thank your patients for continuing their treatment with you. Gratitude is a form of customer service that will significantly benefit the practice. Expect that there will be a natural tendency from patients to resist change. The hygienist will receive the burden of this conflict from patients and should exhibit a calm attitude. Transference of outlook is very common, and when faced with a difficult situation one usually adapts the stance of others. If a patient in your chair appears to have a skeptical attitude toward the new doctor, use confidence to help the person with acceptance. For instance, use specific examples, such as the dentist’s exceptional knowledge of dental diseases or remarkable patient care, to encourage them. Use positive words and be excited about the transition. Remember, change is terrifying for some patients, but the objective is to calm their fears and help them welcome the new experience.
There is a high level of trust demonstrated when patients arrive for their recall visits. There will be questions for the hygienist concerning the change of ownership. Patients will want to know personal information about the new dentist. Be prepared to answer all their questions about the new practitioner. It is your responsibility to become well informed about a brief personal history such as age, native town, how long he or she has been practicing dentistry, education, and credentials. This information can be acquired by taking an honest interest in your new doctor. Start by asking open-ended questions that cannot be answered with simply a yes or no. This approach will also help the doctor feel welcome in his or her work environment. Be aware of how patients receive the doctor so that you may use examples when discussing his or her abilities to others. If you speak with confidence, this assurance will transfer to your patients and put them at ease.
Although it may seem improbable, it is your duty as the hygienist to determine if the patient is aware that the previous dentist is no longer with the practice. This should be your No. 1 goal for the first six months. As you move through patient recalls, make it a priority to determine the knowledge of each patient. An example would be, “Mrs. Jones, are you aware that Dr. Frank retired three months ago?” This simple phrase will open the pathway for your appointment. If the patient is aware and arrived for treatment, you may proceed with the knowledge that he or she made an informed decision to be there. If the patient is not aware, it is your responsibility to make him or her comfortable with the change. The situation will arise when a recall patient is seated with the familiar hygienist, and being uninformed may make the person feel anxious or uneasy. Use soothing techniques to help the person understand that you support and trust the new doctor. With your reassurance, patients will be able to adjust to the change with ease. Treat these patients with added care since you risk losing them when they finish their appointments.
When an office experiences a change of ownership, it is in your best interest to work hard to maintain the patient pool. In the current economic situation, job security is essential. Make all of the above efforts not only for the promotion of the practice, but for the strength of your career. When a personal benefit is placed on your daily goals, the ability to work harder is achieved. If your schedule does not remain full, there is the realistic risk that your new doctor may decide to cut hygiene hours. Use your customer service skills during each appointment and the practice will thrive. Patients will appreciate the service, be thankful for the consistency of your treatment, and return for more appointments. Believe that every retained patient is a prospective future appointment.
To adapt is to become suitable for a new situation or environment.3 The ability to adapt in a professional situation is important to maintain success. When change of ownership occurs, it will affect you as a practitioner also. Expect that there will be differences in the daily operation of the office. You must be able to adjust to them without much criticism in order for the office to run smoothly. Have an open mind about new ideas and try not to immediately resist them. With your support, the adjustment will be easier for the entire office and patients.
Maintaining the patient pool during a change of ownership will present diverse challenges for the entire staff. Each situation should be approached with the purpose of keeping patients active, guiding them toward becoming comfortable with the new doctor, and maintaining their confidence in you. The dental hygienist will have a responsibility toward the practice to put a strong effort into a smooth transition. With the right attitude and confidence, you can prevent the loss of patients, which in turn will maintain production and retain job security. Combining excellent customer service along with efficient communication will allow the practice to flourish during a time of change.
Bonnie Ripin, RRDH, BSDH, is a practicing hygienist at a non-profit dental clinic in Key West, FL.
- Retirement for dentists: These days, retirement is totally optional. Retrieved Nov. 16, 2009, from http://www.thewealthydentist.com/SurveyResults/047_DentistsRetirementPlans_Results.htm.
- Bailit H, Beazoglou T, Heffley D. (2002) Trends; The dental work force in Wisconson. J Am Dent Assoc, Vol. 133, No 8, 1097-1104.
- Morris W. (1996). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. NY, NY: Houghton M.