The Top Seven Don’ts of Patient Retention

New patient acquisition is important, but don’t neglect the ones you already have. The Incisor looks at potential pitfalls in patient retention.

By Susan Richards

Business owners everywhere understand that keeping customers happy is the goal for success. The same holds true for the dental profession, but it’s not always easy to achieve. According to the American Dental Association (ADA), dentists only retain roughly 41% of the patients who pass through their doors.

New patient acquisition is important and requires good marketing strategies to do so, however efforts to keep current clients mustn’t be neglected. In addition to saving time and money, solid patient retention builds loyalty, which leads to referrals and ultimately to good press.

We’ve compiled seven potential pitfalls to avoid when building a solid patient base that keeps coming back for cleanings, checkups, and needed treatments.

1. Don’t Drop the Ball

Make sure their next visit is set before they leave. Establish one employee or a designated team to set up the next appointment before the patient leaves, whether it’s for their regular cleaning or the next step in their treatment plan.

Once the appointment is made, don’t leave it up to the patient to remember. Technology has changed the way we reach out now, so there are multiple options. An industry report found that the majority of patients prefer to receive appointment reminders via text or email, but preferences can vary by age and personal choice so it’s a good idea to be flexible.

Dentists saw many of their clients neglect their oral healthcare during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Don’t assume they – or other absentee patients – are gone for good. Before retiring charts, determine through an email or phone campaign if reactivation is possible. Don’t drop the ball on patients who may just need more assertive follow-up.

2. Don’t Leave Patients in the Dark

The importance of communication can’t be overstated. Many practices have a dedicated team member to engage, educate, and inform so the patient understands completely what their treatment entails, as well as options available, costs, insurance coverage, and more. This can also cut down on more questions in the chair where time is limited.

To that end, communication is key in successful case acceptance, as discussed in a recent Incisor article, and works toward a more trusting relationship between the patient, dentist, and staff. In all aspects of life – not just healthcare – people want to be listened to; their concerns are understood and respected.

Other methods of keeping the lines open with patients include consistent follow-up contact, social media posts, and e-newsletters. Email marketing in the healthcare sector has a higher open rate than that of other industries such as financial, entertainment, and education. Don’t limit your communication to biannual cleaning reminders.

3. Don’t Make Patients Feel Like a Number

Practices are busier than ever as patients return to their dental care routines, but that’s not a guarantee if they feel like a number – or worse, a file that was only glanced at prior to the appointment. Common complaints of poor customer service are:

  • Rude or disinterested staff members.
  • Long wait times or scheduling snafus.
  • Billing errors and insurance confusion.
  • Poor communication or a total failure to respond.

It doesn’t have to take a lot of effort to make patients feel valued and someone in whom the dentist has their best interests. In addition to the engagement practices mentioned above, offices can send out birthday and holiday greetings by email or post. Membership programs and referral gifts can go a long way to cultivating loyalty, while simultaneously building the business.

Don’t forget to make time for the patient, letting them know their value. Even if they’re not scheduled to see the dentist during a visit, having him or her pop in to say hello can make all the difference. And of course, phone calls checking in after an extensive treatment is not just good practice but will be remembered by the patient long after the numbness wears off.

4. Don’t Inconvenience Your Patients

There are other less obvious ways to turn off patients before they’ve even addressed their treatment plan. Do you have a good location with easy-to-find directions on your website? Speaking of websites, it should be clean and easy to navigate with services provided, dentist and staff bios, testimonials, and clear contact information.

Make sure the team is educated and informative, so the patient doesn’t need to call back with more questions or worse, find someone else to work with. Avoid long wait times and provide flexible hours when possible. Little things like free Wi-Fi in the office so they can multitask while waiting will add to the convenience factor.

5. Don’t Let Money Make It Weird

Financial policies and protocols with insurance providers are important to reduce past-due patients and collection outcomes, but confusion or embarrassment can deter patients from returning. The American Association of Dental Office Management recommends evaluating financial systems from the perspective of a client with no experience in claims or collections.

Again, communication is vital when informing patients where they stand and how the office is there to help. Working with them to resolve payment issues will make it easier and more comfortable for them to return for necessary treatment.

6. Don’t Forget Employee Retention

The Health Policy Institute has monitored the impact of COVID-19 on the dental profession since the beginning of the pandemic. While schedules have rebounded, dentists have reported that staffing shortages and recruitment challenges have caused practice capacity to dip by approximately 11%.

Seeing a different face every time for checking in or getting their teeth cleaned can be disconcerting for patients and may lead to more attrition. Human resource professionals urge dentists to hire and retain “difference makers” to keep their practice competitive while reinforcing confidence and trust with their patients.

7. Don’t Mistake Busy for Successful

If patient retention is addressed as vigorously as new patient acquisition, the dental office may be doing a robust business. However, if those patients are seeing increasingly long waits to get in and bigger gaps between treatment appointments, there may be another need not being recognized.

Instead of mistaking a packed waiting room with business success, it could be a sign it’s time to grow. Take a step back and see if a new associate, additional staff, or even another office warrants consideration.

Retaining patients requires reflection, diligence, strategy, and consideration. And at the end of the day, don’t forget why we do what we do.


Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.

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