Why Patients Really Leave Their Dentist

Breaking up is hard to do but knowing why patients change dentists can help you avoid the loss of relationships – and revenue.

By Susan Richards

Breakups can be hard, especially if you’re left with no satisfying explanation of what went wrong. When patients leave a dental practice it can be due to any number of reasons, including relocation or dissatisfaction. The COVID-19 pandemic added even more disruption to oral healthcare that has yet to recover fully.

According to the ongoing survey conducted by the ADA Health Policy Institute, the most recent data shows practices are at 86% of being fully scheduled, and the most common factors preventing them from reaching 100% were last-minute cancellations and no-shows.

Of course, many absentee patients return or reschedule, but what about the ones that leave for good? Two recent surveys conducted by the insurance industry and anecdotal reviews would appear to narrow the reasons down to two broad causes: patient experience and money. We’ll look at more specific factors that chase away patients and what dentists can do about it.

Insurance and Money

A comprehensive survey released last year by DentalInsurance.com indicated the most common reason for changing dentists was their out-of-network status. While an estimated 66% of the population either have private dental benefits or Medicaid, treatment sought out of their insurance carrier’s network presented costs that caused patients to change their practitioners.

Regardless of insurance status, many people change practices based on their affordability. Cost will obviously play a factor for the more than 33% of uninsured U.S. adults, but even those with coverage must work around caps and copayments to afford certain treatments.

The same survey showed that women were much more likely to switch for lower costs, and geographically, the country's western region was more sensitive to dental prices in their responses.

In similar polls by insurance provider Unum, they reported that 40% of respondents changed dentists because they weren’t in their carrier’s insurance network, and 43% left due to increases in dental service prices.

The Patient Experience

With an estimated 60% of the world population suffering from some level of anxiety around visiting the dentist, it’s not surprising that patients’ experiences before, during, and after an appointment can impact their decision to stay or move on.

At 48%, the top reason in the Unum survey that people gave for consideration of changing dentists was a poor chair-side manner or an unfriendly staff. The other high-ranking choices included painful experiences with the dentist or hygienist and long waits at appointments.

The 27% of adults in the DentalInsurance.com poll who cited patient experience problems also noted late starts to appointments and criticisms of their teeth and oral health by the dentist as reasons to leave. More than 7% of those surveyed said the lack of sedation dentistry options would motivate a change of practice.

When a dental hygienist reviewed hundreds of online comments and complaints, she found that much of the negative feedback was a result of poor communication and an erosion of trust. Many of the unhappy patients felt they were being pushed to accept what they considered unnecessary treatment or aggressively upsold procedures through emails and sales calls.

Some of the complaints reflected the recent surveys we’ve covered, including long wait times, painful procedures, and confusion with the insurance or payment plans. A lack of interest from the staff as well as the dentist also contributed to patient dissatisfaction.

Preventable Attrition

Clearly, there are factors that are out of the dentist’s hands when patients decide to switch, such as relocation or insurance coverage. But many of the reasons cited in surveys and anecdotal evidence are easily addressable by dentists and their teams.

Courtesy and communication will go a long way to avoid patients feeling like a number – or worse, a dollar sign. A well-trained staff can make a patient feel welcomed and valued from the first phone call to treatment plan acceptance ­– from financial discussions to follow-up care.

A recent Incisor article on patient retention tackled more common sense steps to take before they pack their proverbial bags. As with the maintenance of any healthy relationship, it’s important to step back and make sure you’re putting in the work with your patients to avoid a costly breakup.


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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