Keeping the sheep in the field!

An important measure for any dental practice is their active patient number. This is the number of patients seen by the practice over a known period, usually 15, 18 or 24 months. This number will give an indication of how many patients the practice can expect to treat for check ups and hygienist appointments going forwards.

The ideal patient is one who comes twice a year for a check up and twice a year (or more) to see the hygienist. In a practice with 3000 patients charging £40 for a check up and £55 for a hygiene appointment (twice a year), this represents a turnover figure of £570,000. However, in most practices, patients rarely come twice a year and stretch the frequency of their check ups and hygienist appointments, so that they are more likely to come for a check up and hygienist appointment every 7, 8 or 9 months. In this case, (say 8 monthly) the annual turnover falls to £427,500: a loss of revenue of £142,500!

So, if you’re a practice owner, I’m sure you’ll agree that having a recall process that is effective at bringing back patients twice (or more) a year is really valuable. In reality, I come across very few practices where their process to recall pay-as-you-go-patients can deliver this! And yet, despite the high stakes, few practice owners or practice managers focus on this, often preferring to let their receptionists take responsibility for bringing the patients back to the practice.

My favourite analogy is a farming one (I live on an old farm in South Devon). A responsible farmer will want to stop his sheep escaping from the field they’re grazing in. He will mend fences and keep the gate shut so that he can be confident that all his sheep are in the field and if necessary, he can count them at any time! In many dental practices, the receptionists are often letting the sheep escape from the field, leaving the gate open for periods of time. Pay-as -you-go-patients, like sheep, will escape their regular check up and hygiene appointment if they can and if the receptionist lets them. What this means is that the receptionists let some of the sheep out of the field and then spend ages trying to coax them back in. There is a better way!

Best practice and proven to be effective:

  1. When a patient leaves the surgery (hopefully escorted by the clinician) and makes their way to reception, the receptionist (proactively, happily and determinedly) books their next appointment, whether this is for treatment, hygiene or a check up.
  2. The patient is then reminded by email 3 weeks before the appointment is due and then again…
  3. By Text message 2 working days before the appointment is due.

If the patient leaving after their appointment at reception cannot make their next appointment there and then (“I haven’t got my diary”, “I’m in a rush”, “I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 6 months” etc etc):

  1. The receptionist arranges to call them at a time to suit them and on a preferred number to make the appointment, later that same day.
  2. They are then reminded by email 3 weeks before the appointment is due and then again…
  3. By Text message 2 working days before the appointment is due.

If the receptionist cannot get hold of them by phone at the pre-arranged time, don’t leave a message. (A missed call alert is more likely to provoke an action):

  1. Continue calling the patient and vary the times of the call for up to 5 working days. If reception can’t make contact with the patient:
  2. Text the patient telling them they have tried to make contact and you will be sending an email containing an appointment.
  3. In the email, ask the patient to confirm that the appointment time is suitable by email or phone.
  4. Remind the patient by email 3 weeks before the appointment is due and ask them to confirm by email or phone within the next 7 days.
  5. If they don’t confirm the appointment, take it out of the diary.

Inevitably you will have a list of patients who, despite your reception team’s best efforts, will not have a next appointment. The secret, of course, is to keep this number as small as possible! Reactivating these patients can be time consuming and difficult. I suggest that you have your most charmingly persistent and confident receptionist try and call these patients to book their next appointment, using several different times including: a Tuesday or Wednesday evening between 1730 and 1930 and a Saturday morning, between 0830 and 1200. Charming, friendly persistence is key, it might take ten calls to make contact with a patient (and I have many true stories about how patients see this as great customer service and being looked after by their dentist, rather than the commonly-held perception within dental practices that they are coming across as too “sales’y” or nagging.)

It’s worth considering that every patient has their preferred channel of communication (phone or text etc…), however, some channels are more effective than others. Here’s the order of effectiveness:

  1. In person
  2. Phone (voice to voice)
  3. Text
  4. Email
  5. Snail Mail
  6. Voice mail

I would avoid completely posting letters to patients or leaving them voicemails.

I hope that you can see that keeping the gate shut and as many sheep as possible in the field is far easier than letting them escape and then trying to round them up! I suggest you might only have the vaguest idea of how these processes actually work in your practice! A client of ours recently decided to find out how his receptionist approached booking appointments. He discovered that patients were not offered a recall/next appointment, instead they were promised that the receptionist would send them one in the post. When he asked why some patients weren’t being sent appointments she informed him that she only sent appointments to the patients she thought he liked… You couldn’t make it up!

If you need some help sorting out your recall systems, contact me for a chat!


m. 07770 430576

t.  01548 852573

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