With pandemic recovery in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look ahead and rethink your practice’s approach to marketing, virtual technology, and metrics.  

By Alison Werner

At the start of 2021, all eyes were on pandemic recovery. But as we close out the year and look ahead to 2022, the recovery is old news. Orthodontic practices should instead be focused on understanding how business has changed. That’s according to Mary Beth Kirkpatrick, managing partner at impact360 Consulting and president of Gaidge, the orthodontic business analytics company.

“The pandemic was a forced restructure of our way of operating,” she says. “It meant we had to think outside the box and be willing to rethink what was working—and what was not—and consider better solutions.” Patient care is being transformed by digital technology, and an orthodontist’s use of technology influences a patient’s perception of their practice and their service. That means taking a fresh look at the approach to marketing, virtual technology, and digital treatment processes, while keeping a close eye on practice metrics.

Mapping Your Market

As Kirkpatrick sees it, the pandemic has changed thinking around marketing, specifically the need to understand the community the practice serves. In the last decade, the reliance on general dentists for referrals has waned. Orthodontic practices instead have focused on raising brand awareness in their community—focusing the message on who the practice is and the great customer service it offers. Kirkpatrick thinks staying in touch with referral sources is certainly important, but now practices must push further. 

More often than not, practices are marketing to the whole community. Instead, Kirkpatrick argues they should look at the patients within their practice who have said yes to treatment already. Then, find those very same types of patients in their community and focus on connecting with them. By analyzing, dissecting, and mapping the market around them, the practice can achieve greater success with ideal prospects and make their marketing dollars work more productively. For example, a practice can focus on marketing to 750 people in the community who actually fall into the pattern of people who have already said yes to the practice, rather than the 5,000 to 10,000 in their drawing area. By narrowing the focus, practices aim to reach those seeking their services, raising awareness and connecting with a true need rather than a shot-gun marketing approach. 

You Need a Marketing Professional

For years, marketing for the orthodontic practice was a cellophane wrapped muffin basket hand-delivered to the local dental practices. But that’s not marketing today, according to Kirkpatrick. Yes, those baskets still have their value when it comes to introductions or maintaining a relationship, but marketing requires a deeper dive into understanding your geography and the local economy that supports your practice. What works in San Francisco probably won’t work as well in rural Missouri. Yes, getting a handle on this type of data can sound daunting, but having the right person on your team can make it easy—and that’s not always a staff member. 

“I think one very important consideration is that your marketing person is not the part-time scheduler or the TC, whose side gig on Friday mornings is creating some marketing ideas,” says Kirkpatrick. “It has to be bigger than that to really succeed.” 

As Kirkpatrick describes it, the internal staff member handling your marketing will likely be great for handling the grassroots campaigns—activities with local schools, outreach to referring dentists, and office TikToks. But for your SEO, paid social media, and other marketing campaigns, that staff member will be the liaison with a marketing company or specialist whose only job is marketing. That marketing professional is going to understand how SEO, ad targeting on social media, the practice website, etc, all fit together to attract patients who otherwise might not have found the practice. 

What Was Once Edgy Is Now a Must

Prior to the pandemic, live chat and links to a virtual consult on the practice website, even text messaging, were considered edgy technologies among the orthodontic community. But as Kirkpatrick sees it, the pandemic and recovery turned those pieces of technology into musts that are here to stay. 

Just look at virtual or remote treatment monitoring. Before the pandemic, most practices considered the innovation unnecessary. Aligner and wire checks need to be in person, they’d argue. But shutdown came and orthodontic practices were unable to see patients from an 8 to 16 week stretch. Those practices with remote monitoring or virtual technology already embedded into their workflow had the advantage.  

As Kirkpatrick sees it, orthodontic practices should be focused on the future—and that’s a future that could include business disruptions. But, here’s the thing: We know now it doesn’t need to include treatment disruptions. The adaptability practices have achieved with the pandemic has opened opportunities that can enhance not only treatment, but also the patient experience from the first touchpoint. 

Another factor here is that today’s consumer not only wants what they want now, but they also value their time. While your practice is willing to carve out time in the schedule for a 10-minute aligner or wire check appointment every 8 to 10 weeks, that doesn’t mean your patients and/or their parents are equally willing or enthusiastic to carve out the 60 to 90 minutes that 10-minute appointment may take out of their day.

Think Outside the Box on Virtual

Kirkpatrick sees virtual/digital technology as a tool to truly improve the patient and practice experience and the reality is that it is here to stay. There are many ways to incorporate it into the practice workflow. While much of the discussion is on how virtual technology can be used for consults and treatment monitoring, think outside the box, she says. And then, create or review your digital workflow.

“Sometimes I’ll find a practice that has anywhere from 50 to 150 new patient exams scheduled and waiting to see the doctor. While the practice might feel like they’ve been really successful in the marketing strategy, it can be a problem,” says Kirkpatrick. “We live in a culture of ‘I want it now.’A culture where Amazon can deliver your package as soon as the same afternoon.” And that translates into patients expecting exams now—not in 3+ weeks when you have an opening in the schedule. If they have to wait, they could move on. But as Kirkpatrick points out, there is a way to ensure patients with distant appointments can be connected to the practice immediately: a simple virtual meet and greet. The patient could be offered a virtual exam at the initial phone call; but, if the practice doesn’t offer virtual exams or the patient prefers to wait for the in-person exam appointment, a meet-and-greet call with the new patient coordinator can start solidifying the patient’s connection to the practice and the feeling that they are cared for. The new patient coordinator can offer information on orthodontic treatment in general, what the exam appointment will look like, and they can offer to have the doctor look at any patient photos the patient is willing to send ahead of the in-person appointment. 

The important thing is to find a way to use virtual that works for you and your practice that doesn’t seem daunting, Kirkpatrick explains. Beyond the meet-and-greet appointment, Kirkpatrick recommends using virtual as a tool of convenience that can differentiate you. Think about how many working parents with kids in school who are among your patient pool. Virtual can be a gift to all involved. The key is to ensure communication is ongoing and the value of the orthodontist’s attention is not diminished, simply transformed. Alternating a virtual observation appointment with an onsite visit gives a parent the opportunity to save a trip to the office.

The reality is that you need to find a way to make virtual work for you because “if you don’t have those technologies in place, you start behind,” says Kirkpatrick. “There are a lot of ways to manage virtual. And if you start in a way you are comfortable with, you can make that much more sophisticated and adapt those processes with a game plan. Review your expectations, assign someone to manage the digital workflow, and determine how you’re going to measure success. And then keep reviewing it.”

Tracking Success

One of the ways to review whether your marketing or virtual strategies are working is to review and measure the impact to your practice. And that’s where data comes in. 

“Most orthodontists love the artistic clinical part of their practice. So sometimes we have to do a little nudging to get them to look at their business metrics,” says Kirkpatrick, who has worked with orthodontists and orthodontic teams across the United States, Canada, and Australia for over 30 years. And what are the key metrics orthodontic practices should be focused on today? 

“If your phone is not ringing with people who want to schedule an exam, you aren’t going to be happy with any other metric in your practice. So start there with how many new patient additions you’ve made this week, this month, this quarter,” says Kirkpatrick. 

From there, it’s all about conversion. And as Kirkpatrick describes it, there are two conversion metrics every practice should be tracking. “The first is can you convert the new patient call into an exam appointment. The second is converting an exam into a treatment start if the time is right. These two pieces of data are your high-level view; but you will also want to know additional data about who is calling and who is accepting treatment. For example, if your adult numbers are up, then you need to make sure your practice’s systems, service, and environment make them feel welcome.” 

Additionally, Kirkpatrick says there are several other financial metrics to review to understand the pulse of the practice. Most importantly, net production and net collection are the lifeblood of a practice. Following the historical trends and comparing these two metrics against each other provides practices with visibility to the financial health in the short and long term, including seasonality and times of year that make the best sense to initiate marketing programs. Practices also need to be tracking no shows for exams and follow the trends to make necessary changes to protocols accordingly. Let data help you manage and prioritize your observation pool, as well as determining how you will address treatment overruns. That last metric—treatment overruns—is key to managing your schedule as well as your credibility. OP

Alison Werner is the chief editor of Orthodontic Products.