Dental Software Patient Scheduling Preferences
IndustryView | 2015
Missed appointments are the biggest source of lost revenue for many dentists. One tool that can help reduce no-shows and cancellations is practice management software. To learn more about how this technology can benefit practices, Software Advice surveyed patients on their preferences for dental scheduling software. This report is intended to help dental practices optimize the use of their current software system, or help guide an upcoming software purchase.
Dentists typically advise patients to schedule preventive care visits every six months, but getting them to show up is a constant challenge. It all starts with identifying which patients are overdue for a cleaning or check-up. The average practice services 2,500 patients, and keeping track of them can be a daunting task without the right system in place.
Jason Siruchek, chief operating officer at dental practice consulting firm Million Dollar PPO, says there are three main ways practices prevent patients from falling through the cracks. The first involves dental office staff poring over patients’ paper charts, determining the date of their last visit and hand-writing postcards or making personal phone calls encouraging them to schedule their next appointment.
“That’s the really old-fashioned way,” he says. “But I know for a fact that method is still being used in some practices.”
The second approach is partially automated, mixing manual efforts with digital technology. A list of overdue patients is periodically generated using practice management software, which staff members reference to reach out to patients by mail or phone.
The third way, which Siruchek describes as the most “efficient” and “current,” is relying on a fully automated system. Such a system includes digital patient scheduling and reminder capabilities. These can automatically send text message and email reminders to overdue patients, while offering more accessible scheduling options (e.g., allowing patients to choose their appointment date and time through a patient portal).
In dentistry, all three of these strategies can be described as “recall” or “recare” systems. Dubbed by some as the “heartbeat” of a dental practice, the objective of a recall system is to retain existing patients so they will continue to keep appointments with the practice for cleanings and/or oral health consultations.
This strategy is notoriously harder than it sounds. Studies show dentists retain less than 41 percent of the new patients who come into their offices. Fortunately, practices are not powerless against this statistic. The survey results highlighted in this report can help dentists determine which software-enabled recall strategies are likely to have the greatest effect on encouraging patients to return.
Our survey sample includes patients who have been to the dentist in the past two and a half years. Among those with a preference, 30 percent say text messages are their preferred method of receiving reminders for an upcoming appointment. Email comes in second, followed by phone calls and direct mail, such as postcards.
The least-preferred type of reminder message, mailed notes and postcards, is also the least automatable one, since a staff member must physically send these notices out. Dr. Paul Amato, a dentist at Seattle’s LeCuyer and Amato Dentistry, says mail delivery can actually present more scheduling challenges than benefits.
“In our practice, we’re so busy that if a patient gets a postcard that says they’re due for their next care visit in a month, we’re already booked by the time they call,” he says.
Amato notes he has seen a shift toward automated reminders, such as phone calls, texts and emails, since they can be deployed instantaneously.
“Any dentist that’s not utilizing these services is falling behind,” he says.
Patients appear to agree. A study cited in the Dental Tribune found that automated appointment reminders reduced the amount of dental office no-shows by nearly 23 percent in a practice that had recently implemented them.
“We’re not sending as many reminder cards; we’re definitely sending more texts,” affirms Amato. “In some cases, we’ll send the patient a text and an email, in addition to using a phone call reminder service.”
Covering all of these bases is a smart move. Given our finding that text, email and phone call reminders all rank closely in popularity, dentists should consider investing in software that is capable of sending all of these message types. One of the many vendors that offers this capability in its software is Carestream Dental.
Joe Petrovich is the company’s U.S. director of eServices, a Carestream Dental product that includes an automated dental appointment reminder module called eReminders. Petrovich says our survey results on text message preferences are in line with the type of growth he has observed firsthand.
“With our own eReminders service, we have seen the percentage of texts increase by 10 percent over the past three years, and expect this trend of text over voice to continue,” he says. “Text messaging, by its nature, is short and fast, which makes it an ideal mechanism for reminders.”
Carestream Dental text message reminder
While our overall pool of respondents may agree with this statement, we next wanted to break down our findings data by age group to see how preferences differ.
Unsurprisingly, older respondents in our sample are less eager to embrace text reminders: Those age 35 to 54 years old actually prefer email over text. Interestingly, patients over 55 years old also prefer email reminders slightly more than phone calls, texts and postcards. Altogether, a combined 65 percent of patients age 35 and older prefer to be reminded via email.
Given these nuances, dentists should consider software solutions that can be customized from patient to patient—that is, software that sends automated reminders based on individual preferences.
For example, perhaps a 20-year-old patient wants to receive text reminders, while a 56-year-old prefers a phone call. Once dental office staff inputs a particular patient’s preferences into their digital profile, the software can automatically send reminders via their desired form of communication.
“There’s no longer a 'one size fits all' model mentality in dental software,” explains Cheryl Kanhai, president of Maxident Dental Software. “You can customize each patient’s experience, which is huge. Smart technology allows you to do that.”
Patients’ preferred contact methods in Maxident’s MaxiReminder
Kanhai says patients appreciate it when practices incorporate their outreach preferences because it shows they are valued, which establishes a sense of respect and familiarity that can lead to greater patient retention.
It’s hard to beat the convenience of scheduling your next appointment right after your current one, while you’re still at the dentist’s office. In fact, a majority of the patients we surveyed prefer to do this.
However, alternative scheduling methods are growing in popularity among patients. Thirty percent would rather schedule on the phone, after receiving a call from the practice. A combined 10 percent want to schedule online through a website or patient portal, or by exchanging texts with office staff.
Scheduling at the office can be particularly convenient for teeth cleaning appointments with a hygienist.
“Before a patient leaves our practice, we like to have our hygienist pre-book them three months or six months in advance,” says Dr. Amato.
While in-office pre-booking is popular among both patients and providers, dental practice consultant Jason Siruchek says it’s not always an effective strategy to reduce missed or canceled appointments. Some patients, he explains, constantly break their hygiene appointments, and thus, shouldn’t be scheduled in advance.
Instead, he advises practices to look into systems that are able to secure last-minute patients to fill unexpected scheduling holes, such as Demandforce for Dentrix. This software can, for example, create a list of overdue dental patients and email them all at once, explaining that the first patient to confirm an appointment for that day will receive a free, inexpensive incentive, such as an at-home whitening kit. Siruchek says this strategy has proven to be a cost-effective way of dealing with chronically overdue patients while also creating opportunities for revenue.
It is surprising to see that only 7 percent of respondents choose the Web as their preferred scheduling option. But Bill Jackson, vice president of business development for vendor Planet DDS, says practices should offer patients a variety of scheduling options regardless of which one is most popular at the moment.
“I want to get in touch with 100 percent of my patients,” he says. “So if someone wants to make an appointment at my practice, I want to give them the opportunity to do that—whether it’s the middle of the night, whether they’re still in the office or whatever other situation they may be in. I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket.”
This is why Jackson’s company offers dental patients online scheduling capabilities. People interested in booking an appointment can simply pick an available time slot. New patients can do so through a website, and existing ones can use patient portals.
Scheduling an appointment with Planet DDS’ Denticon software
Breaking down our data on appointment scheduling preferences by age, we find that 35 to 54-year-olds are most receptive to both online and text message scheduling. This finding suggests that dentists and software vendors alike should not underestimate this age group’s tech-savviness. It also reflects larger nationwide trends in Internet use, which show that even the most senior citizens are going online in ever-increasing numbers.
Jackson says it’s only a matter of time before these percentages grow even larger, particularly as patient portals become more common in the greater medical world. Portals are already gaining traction among younger patients, and our data suggests that patients in the middle age range are also willing to begin embracing this technology.
The rising popularity of the patient portal is partly due to government support. Patient portal use by 5 percent of a medical practice’s patients is a requirement for physicians who want to receive federal financial incentives for adopting electronic health record (EHR) systems.
Dentists must meet more stringent requirements than physicians to receive EHR-related financial incentives, but that hasn’t deterred dental software vendors from incorporating patient portals into their systems.
“There’s no way the dental world can remain isolated if the whole medical world is adopting EHRs [with patient portals],” says Jackson. “It hasn’t hit dental yet in terms of popularity, but it’s going to.”
Other experts we spoke with agree that portal-based scheduling will gain traction over the next few years.
“We feel that this is a definite opportunity for the future and have seen the expansion of similar solutions in other industries,” says Carestream Dental’s Petrovich.
We also asked patients when they would prefer to receive a reminder for an upcoming dental appointment (allowing them to select multiple answers). The highest percentage of respondents say they want to hear from the practice one to three days before the appointment.
Some systems allow practices to customize reminder time frames based on patient preferences. Most of the experts we spoke with encourage sending multiple reminders at different time intervals, though some caution it is important to let patients know that they should expect to receive more than one reminder message from the practice so they don’t get annoyed.
Million Dollar PPO’s Siruchek says there are no set rules to predict which time frame will be most effective in helping patients keep their appointments.
“It depends on the practice,” he explains. “We like to send reminders two weeks before the appointment, 48 hours prior and we are also upping the ante by confirming a couple of hours ahead of time, too.”
Most practices, he explains, need at least 48 hours’ notice to be able to fill a canceled appointment slot with a different patient.
For dentists who are still not convinced they should invest in a new or more robust software system for recall purposes, consider the results of Software Advice’s 2014 dental software BuyerView report. We analyzed data from interactions with prospective dental software buyers, and found that robust, automated recall/appointment reminder systems are the top-requested software modules.
This finding indicates there is already widespread interest in robust recall systems. As more dentists step up their efforts to reach and retain patients with software, it will be increasingly important for practices to keep up with their peers.
Furthermore, the dentists in our 2014 survey say patient scheduling is the most necessary application for a system to have when looking for new dental software.
It’s no surprise scheduling is so important to dental practices: An American Dental Association study found 32 percent of dentists do not feel they are “busy enough.” Keeping a full schedule helps everyone work to their full potential, and software with expanded scheduling options (e.g., through portals/texts) can give dentistry practices an edge when trying to keep their days busy and profitable.
We set out to discover which software-enabled outreach methods patients believe would most impact their likelihood to schedule a new appointment, or, as a returning patient, remember their pre-scheduled appointment.
What we found is a predilection for automated, digital messages to deliver appointment reminders. Text messages in particular are gaining ground as the preferred patient communication channel.
While in-person and phone scheduling is favored over the use of Web portals/sites and texts, some industry experts say patients may be more open to the use of tools such as patient portals for scheduling in the coming years.
It costs, on average, six times more money to acquire a new patient than it does to retain a current one. Practices that hesitate to purchase automated recall systems due to pricing concerns should thus view this technology as a relatively cost-effective method of boosting their business’ bottom line.
After all, research indicates an effective recall system can pay off for a practice. According to the Academy of General Dentistry, the average dentist has a 60 to 70 percent chance of convincing existing patients to commit to recommended, revenue-generating treatments (e.g., surgeries and fillings). But for new patients, that chance drops to 20 percent.
Clearly, it pays to know how to draw past patients back to the chair—and software can give dentists the tools to do it.
A closer look at the demographics in our sample reveals that the highest percentage of respondents in the patient survey part of this report are 55 to 64 years old. The majority are males.
To find the data in this report, we conducted a survey consisting of 1,715 dental patients. All survey questionnaires undergo an internal peer review process to ensure clarity in wording.
We also included findings from Software Advice’s 2014 dental software BuyerView report. That data was created by selecting 368 recent phone interactions to analyze based on conversation with buyers who contact us seeking new dental software. These findings exclusively represent those buyers who contacted Software Advice for guidance on software selection, and may not be indicative of the market as a whole.
Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent partner vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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