Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you should stay down. You can grow your practice using data and strategy.

By Jessica Bryson

We at Gaidge have been reflecting on where orthodontic practices are YTD in 2022 compared to 2021. The fact is the info has weighed on us and caused alarm; especially since the data indicates a decline in new patient calls and starts—the lifeblood of orthodontic practices. According to Gaidge, nationally aggregated data shows a drop of 7.7% in new patient calls, with overall starts down 7.5% during Q1 to Q2 of this year.

Here’s the thing: We know the market has experienced abnormal fluctuations. And while YTD data for 2022 compared to 2021 provides a valid reason for reflection, the recommendation is to compare your practice’s performance to 2019 to level expectations. And here, in many practices, we are seeing flat or low single-digit growth. Our advice to orthodontists: Don’t panic; instead, undertake a strategic approach to growth.

As a business, your orthodontic practice must consider both the top line (new revenue) and the bottom line (profitability). In order to grow your top line, you must increase production; and to improve your bottom line, you must decrease expenses and improve efficiency. While these areas are not mutually exclusive, they require different resources and tactics. In a down market, you may be inclined to hold on to cash and focus only on the bottom line. However, the smartest business leaders play the long game and use a down market to reinvest in themselves for the future.

Growing the top line

Growth can be achieved in one of two ways: one, happenstance—where luck, coincidence, or market forces lean in your favor; or, two, a deliberate decision to grow through strategy. While increasing through chance is what we all hope for, it is unstable and relies on luck. Strategic growth is when you evaluate your market opportunity, examine your tactics, then use data-based decisions for planning, and, finally, quantify your results and your return on investment. Strategic growth is intentional, with higher stability and predictability, and it involves measurement and review to stay the course, or, if needed, course correct. Importantly, it allows you and your team to be proactive versus reactive in your approach to handling your patient funnel.

Strategic growth is a recipe that starts and ends with data

It’s a known fact that it’s ‘garbage in, garbage out’ when it comes to data; so accuracy is critical. For example, it’s not uncommon to find an orthodontic practice with internal processes that don’t always stress the importance of proper appointment tracking or financial entry. But, with a regular habit of reconciliation and training, that same orthodontic practice can have data it can trust and use to make educated business decisions around their marketing initiatives and systems within the practice.

So, where to start? Focus on the number of new patients added to your software. Monitoring new patients added allows you to evaluate your relationships to referring doctors and patients; in addition, it can be used to monitor the success of marketing activities. The orthodontic customer journey starts long before the initial call; and it’s imperative for a long-term growth strategy to do your best to gain an understanding of what is prompting new prospects to call the practice.

Adapt processes and teams to a multi-communication strategy

While we still use the term “new patient calls,” the way a patient initiates contact with the orthodontic practice has significantly evolved. Now patients can contact the practice via text, email, or web to request an appointment; what’s more, the practice might offer virtual consultations. And with all these options, orthodontic practices can no longer afford a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how they follow-up. The fact is your reply to these prospective patients needs to evolve. You should be mirroring their chosen form of communication.

For example, if you receive an email request for a consultation, you do not want your first step to be a phone call. Instead, copy the communication channel started by the prospect and email them back as quickly as possible.

The thing to keep in mind is that each method of communication a patient uses to make contact with your practice carries meaning. When a patient calls your practice, the caller is typically ready to commit to an appointment immediately. In this case, your front line team needs to be prepared and ready to meet this demand. But when a prospect initiates contact using text or virtual appointment submission, they may need additional information to commit to the next step; not to mention that most unknown calls are not answered. In this case, you will need to be persistent with these leads, but they will pay off with nurturing.

So, to adapt your practice’s processes, you should examine your workflow at the front desk and audit your process for each lead source. Ensure you have the right team members assigned to these tasks as some will shy away from multiple follow-ups. Ensuring your practice is meeting patients where they are and adjusting your processes to maximize your ROI is how you avoid wasting marketing dollars or coming to the incorrect conclusion about marketing program effectiveness.

Time is a valuable resource and a selling tool

The next step is to complete an exam. We at Gaidge recommend that 90% of the patients added to your practice management software should complete an exam. This means the experience you create for your patients starts before they enter the front door. Essential to meeting this 90% conversion goal is timeliness. The decision to purchase orthodontic treatment is an emotionally fueled one; and as such, you need to be mindful of the amount of time between the initial contact to the exam. Remember: Our attention spans are shorter than ever. The further out you schedule, the higher the risk of attrition.

Now, along with timeliness, convenience is essential to meeting the 90% conversion goal. Evaluate your intake process. Are you making it easy for your incoming patients to share information with you? Having your intake completed before the patient arrives at the practice is a win-win. The more information you have before the exam, the less time required of them to sit in your waiting room and the easier it is to be proactive in your approach. You can also use the information gathered to eliminate roadblocks before they arise in the exam room. Utilizing digital intake forms such as Gaidge Forms and Gaidge’s New Patient Tracker allows you to manage your intake, exam preparation, and new patient adds to exam conversion.

The third factor in meeting that 90% conversion goal is your schedule. The fact is it can be an impediment to your practice’s growth. A poorly designed or dated schedule not only provides immense clinical stress and inefficiency, but can also restrict the number of exams you accommodate. Evaluate your exam availability and your future scheduled exams. Suppose you have a high number of upcoming exams; in that case, you may want to implement alternative options such as virtual appointments or open an additional column to support prompt scheduling of exams. An inefficient schedule can also limit your practice’s ability to perform same-day starts; and same-day starts are part of an effective growth strategy as they allow for instant gratification. If your schedule allows, be mindful of offering this option ahead of time during your initial new patient communication so your prospects can plan accordingly.

Hidden gems of opportunity and long-term growth

Now outside the exam, it’s essential to evaluate other revenue channels, such as pending and observation patients. While your goal should be to drive same-day treatment acceptance, there will be those who want to process the information and options presented. Not only is this a time to reflect on the exam process, but also an opportunity to convert. When communicating with pending patients, it is key to put in place a process that includes a touchpoint 24 to 48 hours following the exam. The further from the exam, the more difficult it can be to get the start.

Now when it comes to your observation pool, we recommend that 20% to 30% of your monthly starts should come from this group. With the significant decrease in adult starts year-over-year I noted earlier, it is even more important to harvest starts from this pool. Also, I’ll note, it’s essential to play to your strengths. When considering your treatment options, consider the amount of time versus money that goes into auxiliary treatments.

Converting exams to starts is a sum of the experiences you create. Celebrate your wins and reflect on your misses. While culture isn’t quantifiable, the culture you create will produce a team that will move your vision forward, thus resulting in measurable outcomes. Regularly share your targets, goals, and progress; your team wants to know how they are doing. High-performing teams are more successful, and your patients can feel it when you’ve cultivated a positive environment. Word-of-mouth referrals carry the most weight of all your marketing initiatives and creating happy patients will increase positive communication about your brand in the community. OP

Jessica Bryson has been in the orthodontic industry for over 20 years with hands-on experience in each area of the orthodontic practice. Bryson’s holistic knowledge of practice operations has made her a leader in TC training, practice marketing, team unity, and efficiency systems. She joined Gaidge in 2019 as a customer care specialist and currently holds a hybrid role as a practice management consultant with impact360.