by Judy Pearson
E-mail and newsletters can boost your bottom line
Think back to orthodontics in the early days. I’m talking about the mid-1960s, the days when smiles sparkled with the shine of metal. The offices were small (and sometimes a little scary), the bands were big (and also a little scary), and the office/patient communication system consisted of leaving each appointment clutching a card with the next appointment’s date and time on it. It was about as low-tech as you could get.
Welcome to orthodontics in the 21st century. Offices are spacious, open, and bright. Flat-screen televisions entertain patients with extreme sports videos; wires straighten teeth by themselves; and if you don’t want your braces to show, you can even opt for invisible treatment. Why shouldn’t office/patient communication systems be advanced as well? Quite simply, they are. We have entered the realm of online communications.
First, an explanation. Online communication is defined as communication employing technology that can be used to replace, supplement, and/or enhance the delivery of information. It allows for communication anywhere, anytime, anyplace. And the United States is using the Internet to help in decision-making as well as for communication. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project of April 2006, 73% of all Americans use the Internet. Eighty-four percent of 30- to 49-year-olds use it; 91% of households with incomes totaling more than $75,000 per year are online, as are 91% of college grads. If those demographics sound familiar, it’s because they pretty well mirror the potential orthodontic patient’s family.
The Power of E-mail
Orthodontics seems to be leading the pack in online communications in the medical/dental world. Several companies offer systems, but the industry leaders are Sesame Communications’ Ortho Sesame and TeleVox’s T.Link product. Their features are similar, although differences exist. And once an office has collected patients’ e-mail addresses (not nearly as daunting a task as it sounds—the companies will guide you through the process), an exciting new world will open. We’re going to look at these systems’ features, along with their benefits, which are designed not only to make the patients happy, but to make the business end of orthodontics flow smoothly as well.
The most applauded feature is the appointment-reminder e-mail. While some patients may have come to rely on a phone-call reminder, offices that have online communication agree that the majority of their patients not only love the e-mails, they prefer them. The goal of telephone reminders is to reduce appointment failures; but too often, those reminders aren’t received by, or passed on to, the appropriate party. (Picture a teen in the middle of a video game when the call comes from your office. Do you honestly think mom will get the message?) In addition, answering machines have been known to cut off messages. And of course, the calls have to be facilitated by your staff members. With online communication systems, e-mails can be sent automatically to parents as well as to patients. E-mails are less intrusive than phone calls; and in today’s Überbusy world, that’s refreshing.
Other automatically generated e-mails are also a part of these systems. Birthday cards and holiday cards (with a large variety of each to choose from) remind patients that you’re thinking about them. And these e-mail cards can all be personalized to include additional info from your office.
Nonautomated e-mails to patients and parents are equally easy to employ. For example, if a patient isn’t keeping up with oral hygiene, an assistant can send a friendly (or more aggressive, as the case may be) e-mail right from a chairside computer. Likewise, reminders to wear elastics and headgear can be generated, and all the messages can be easily archived so that assistants don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time they want to send one.
Start Spreading the Newsletter
Another innovative form of communication is the e-mail newsletter. Using the simple tools within the systems, you can send important information about orthodontics and your practice to thousands of patients with a single mouse click. Newsletters allow you to remind patients about office events and contests, bring them up to date about new technologies, and share community news. The office of Joe Pearson, DDS, M Ed, in Phoenix uses a newsletter as the sole form of invitation to its annual pool party. They’ve filled a local pool to capacity (450 happy patients and their families) the last 3 years. Richard Boyd, DDS, MS, in Sugar Land, Tex, used a newsletter to announce a special discount to all patients who paid off their accounts by the end of the year. Twenty minutes after the newsletter went out, patients began calling with credit cards in hand.
A Two-Way Street
Thus far, we’ve talked about communication coming from your office and going to the patient, but having a practice that’s “wired” (no pun intended) gives patients features they can use on their own as well. Ask any front-office staff member how many minutes she spends each week answering patient calls for information about their appointments and accounts. “Am I supposed to be there at 2:30 or 3:30?” “Can you tell me what I owe this month?” “Did my insurance company make a payment yet?” Then calculate those minutes into dollars and cents. The result can be pretty eye-opening, and an online communication system can make it all easier.
Once they register, patients are sent personal passwords that allow them access to their accounts through your Web site. From there, they can view their scheduled appointments, see their accounts, and make payments. And they can do those things on their own time, from their own homes or offices. So what happens to the time your front-office staff saves from not having to answer those calls? They can devote more time to the patients currently in the office and to the all-important new-patient calls.
Generally, when a new patient begins treatment, only one parent or guardian comes to the appointment. But often all of the responsible parties want to know about the treatment. Online communication can cover that as well. Patients’ intraoral photographs and radiographs can be uploaded automatically, and patients can access them through your Web site, just as they did with their account info. At any time, patients and family members can see at home what used to live only in the dark recesses of your office’s file cabinet.
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Uploaded photos and radiographs have other benefits as well. Communication between you, your referrals, and other dental professionals is an integral part of your practice. And because you are rarely at your desk at the same time your colleagues are, that communication frequently results in a series of time-wasting phone calls. You leave them messages, they leave you messages, and round and round you go. These online systems, however, allow you to have private, password-protected “conversations” that can include the uploaded photos and radiographs. You give and receive needed input, and your referrals are kept up to date on your mutual patients’ treatment.
What Online Communication Cannot Do
While this technology is all very impressive, online communication systems are in no way intended to replace your practice-management software. Rather. they complement that software. As the latter helps you manage your practice, the former helps you manage your relationships.
Neither does online communication replace good, old-fashioned customer service. It enhances it. If your staff has more time to spend with new and in-office patients, and you can more effectively communicate with other dental professionals, the time savings translates into money savings. And that will travel immediately to your bottom line. Although the sentiment is a clichÉ, it’s really true here: The systems practically pay for themselves.
Modern orthodontics may not quite be up to The Jetsons’ level yet, but with technologies like online communications, we’re creeping ever closer. In the immortal words of a Madison Avenue exec long ago, “We’ve come a long way, baby!”
Judy Pearson is the author of two published books and has an active public speaking career. She is also the wife of Phoenix orthodontist Joe Pearson, DDS, M Ed, which gives her at least some authority in the orthodontic world. For more information, contact