A dentist in full PPE examines a patient. Dental anxiety has always been a challenge with patients, and COVID-19 hasn’t helped matters. While the American Dental Association has predicted that dentists will be back at capacity soon, if they aren’t already, some practices are noticing a slower return to care. If that’s true for you, a few changes to patient messaging may be just what the doctor ordered. According to research in Dentistry Journal, an empathetic approach is positively associated with a reduction in patient anxiety (which is linked to appointment avoidance). A recent review of studies found that it also improves treatment negotiation and leads to better adherence to care plans and greater patient and practitioner satisfaction.

Below are five empathy-based business strategies that can help your practice return to pre-pandemic levels.

1. Address today’s barriers to care

Dentists are not new to patient avoidance but there may be additional factors at play in 2021. Be proactive to learn what’s causing hesitation and make sure your patients are comfortable returning.

  • Ask for feedback. The best way to find out what’s keeping patients out of your chair is to ask them. This easy-to-share patient questionnaire (PDF) will help you learn what’s on their minds. Or you can create your own online survey, using tools like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.
  • Ease embarrassment. Some patients may feel guilty that it’s been so long since their last appointment. In your communications, let patients know that it’s understandable and common — and that no one on staff will question or comment about it.

  Tip  

If you offer anxiety-relieving approaches such as sedation dentistry, this may be a good time to mention it in marketing messages. This may encourage patients with more serious problems to seek your help.

2. Highlight safety on social media

Nearly four in 10 patients don’t believe dental offices are safer today than they were last spring. Often, seeing is believing, so be sure to share the specific improvements you’ve made.

  • Show; don’t just tell. Create a video of a virtual tour of your practice, showing all the safety protocols, big and small. Or do a few focused clips: People love a behind-the-scenes look at things like how dental tools are disinfected.
  • Talk about vaccines. An ADA survey showed that 64% of hesitant patients would likely return if they knew the staff was vaccinated. Invite your team to share their vaccination selfies on your social media page, for example.

  Tip  

For additional tips on making the most of social media and other digital marketing tools, you can read Your Online Presence Is More Important Than Ever.

3. Make the most of online options

More patients now feel comfortable with teledentistry. In fact, a 2019 survey by DentaVox reported that 78% of patients expected to try it within five years, and with the 2020 telehealth boom, that number is likely much higher now.

  • Avoid in-person paperwork. Portals, website forms, and other online tools allow patients to submit questions about care, treatment, appointments, and prescription refills. You can also have them answer a COVID-19 symptom questionnaire ahead of a visit.
  • Offer video consults. The British Dental Journal recommends this as a way to return patients to care over time, manage any backlog, and assess and prioritize patients with an acute problem.

  Tip  

Consider hosting a live Q&A session on social media or a video platform (like Zoom). Be sure to choose a “hot topic,” such as clear aligners or a new service you’re offering.

4. Show who’s behind the mask

People are craving human connection, so this is the perfect opportunity to show how you are unique. Consider Dr. Ashley Joves, whose practice — Smile & Co. — was designed to feel like home. “I want patients to forget that they’re at the dentist when they’re here,” she said in our video, "Designing a dental office that feels like home." You can use her approach, even if you have a different philosophy.

  • Revisit your business plan. Work to differentiate yourself and budget for projects that will enhance your brand. For example, Dr. Joves took out a loan for a remodel that includes an outdoor picnic-table oasis for relaxing before appointments. (Learn about business plans in a step by step business plan guide.)
  • Let them see what else you do. On your Facebook page, use videos and posts to show your fun side. Sharing your hobbies and interests can help build rapport.

  Tip  

For hygienists who wear a mask most of the time, ask that they clip a photo of their smiling face on their lab coat. This may create a friendlier atmosphere overall.

5. Consider additional payment options

With many patients struggling with pandemic-related financial issues, it’s worth exploring how you can offer some flexibility.

  • Rethink deadlines. The management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has recommended that businesses offer targeted payment plans or deadline extensions — or both. You might also consider looking into financing plans or credit cards designed just for dental patients.
  • Reach out to small businesses. To help local owners and their staff, consider offering a cost-friendly small business dental membership plan.

  Tip  

Remind patients that the most cost-effective way to handle dental needs is through daily hygiene and regular checkups, which may help them avoid expensive treatments later.

The pandemic has taught us many lessons about patience and empathy. Now is the perfect time for healthcare professionals to reflect on what was learned — then build back better than before.

Learn more: To find out what your dental patients need now and in the near future, consider sending them this easy-to-share 5-minute survey (PDF).

Sources: American Dental Association, British Dental Journal, DentaVox, Dentistry Journal, NC Oral Health Collaborative, The New Zealand Dental Journal, McKinsey & Company, US Chamber of Commerce, Wells Fargo Practice Finance, RocketLawyer, Boosted by Lightricks

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