Every morning, Kelly Rizzo, the treatment coordinator for Shawn L. Miller, DMD, MMSc, walks the walk the patient walks. The first to arrive at either the practice’s Orange or Aliso Viejo, Calif, offices, Rizzo doesn’t go in the backdoor or the staff door. She comes through the front door and sees what the patient sees when they first walk in. This is all part of her passion for making sure the patient’s experience at Miller Orthodontics is exceptional.

This passion for the patient experience is born out of long experience. This year, Rizzo marks 33 years in orthodontics. She got her start in the back office of her own orthodontist—Gerald Eidenmuller, DDS, and spent 26 years with him before Miller bought the practice in 2009. While she holds the official title of treatment coordinator today, Rizzo has done it all. When she started in the 1980s, titles like treatment or financial coordinator weren’t the norm. As Rizzo puts it, “You were just the office manager who did everything. You did the finances, the treatment plan, paid the bills, and did payroll. It became a specialty as time progressed.”

All this experience has attuned Rizzo to what it takes to make a positive patient-practice connection. Foremost is ensuring the practice maintains a welcoming atmosphere, because you never know if the person who dialed the wrong number or walks in off the street looking for directions for another business could be a potential patient.

“We had a patient come into our office accidentally,” Rizzo recalls. “They were referred to another orthodontist about ¾-mile away and somehow ended up at our office.” The father showed Rizzo the referral slip and Rizzo explained that he and his daughter were at the wrong office. But instead of sending them away, Rizzo invited the daughter to sit down and work on her homework, while she looked up directions to the other orthodontist’s office for the father. Rizzo even offered to call the other office and let them know the father and his daughter were going to be late to the appointment. Before the two left, Rizzo told the father that if they wanted to come back to the office after their other consultation, they were welcome. Rizzo admits she did not think the two would return as the father did not speak English well and was clearly going to an orthodontist who spoke his native tongue. But as she says, “We made the experience positive for him.” A couple hours later, the father called the office and asked for an appointment. The daughter started treatment with Miller Orthodontics that day.

“That was all in how we treated him. We made him feel welcome. We didn’t just say, ‘They’re down the street’—which is what [many] front office people would say. They would have sent [the father and his daughter] on their way. We didn’t do that.

“Now did I think that was even going to happen? Absolutely not! But I’m just saying you have to treat everyone you come in contact with as a prospective patient and make their experience so positive that they want to come back.”

Rizzo firmly believes in staff owning the patient experience as much as the doctor does. And beyond a welcoming attitude that means being as knowledgeable as possible.

Rizzo considers herself lucky to have started her career with an orthodontist who was passionate about educating his employees. “Although it might have been a little costly at the time, every time [Eidenmuller] wanted to bring a new concept into the office he would take me and [other staff members] to a course,” she recalls. This allowed new concepts and tools to be more easily introduced into the practice as the staff was behind it from the beginning.

“We got excited by going to the classes and seeing what could happen and how it could change your practice and how you would treat people,” she says.

In fact, Rizzo’s attendance at a Wilckodontics®, or Accelerated Osteogenic Orthodontics (AOO), course directly helped increase the practice’s revenue. As she sat in the course, she thought about all the borderline surgical cases the practice had that hadn’t pursued treatment. Once back at the office, she pulled those files and called those patients back for a second consultation to discuss AOO. Many of those patients then started treatment and the practice benefited financially.

“That’s [an example] of how empowering staff can impact your practice in such a positive way. That’s a direct correlation between taking one or two key people to a course and changing your practice. The little bit spent in taking us came back 10 fold to the practice,” she says.

Rizzo knows that staff attendance is often the exception, not the rule at most courses. “You very rarely see staff, especially front office people or treatment coordinators. Sometimes you’ll see someone from the back office,” she says. But she believes staff education, despite being cost prohibitive at times, can make all the difference in forging that patient-practice connection.

After all, the job of the practice staff is to make that patient-practice connection as enjoyable to the patient and as profitable to the practice as possible. OP