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How to handle dental appointment cancellations

How to handle dental appointment cancellations

Patients cancelling at the last minute can have a direct impact on the profitability of your practice. Here’s how to handle dental appointment cancellations. By Frank Leggett

Every time a patient cancels at short notice, it creates a hole in your carefully scheduled day. Staff then need to stop what they are doing and try to book another patient into the empty time slot. Any cancellations that can’t be filled represent lost income and can be a real source of frustration. 

While the reasons for cancelling are varied, there are six handy ways to reduce broken appointments. 

1. Help the patient take responsibility for their own appointment

The key to patient responsibility is to ensure they are aware of their own oral health. Motivation stems from being concerned about the potential damage that can be caused by a lack of maintenance and hygiene.

“If a patient is not concerned about their oral health then there is less motivation to keep an appointment or to go ahead with any kind of treatment,” says Patric Moberger, general manager of training and development at Prime Practice. “On the other hand, concern about the state of their oral health means there is less chance of that patient cancelling.” 

2. Cancellations start in the treatment room

“It’s the responsibility of the clinician to deepen the awareness of the patient,” says Moberger.

“Very often, dentists and hygienists are good at explaining but don’t always check that the patient has understood.” If a patient is nervous or anxious, they will nod and pretend to understand in order to get out of the practice as quickly as possible. 

It’s important to use language the patient understands and not be too technical. Impress on the patient that if they have a condition, it will not just go away. They often hold a belief that everything has been okay up to now so everything will be fine in the future. Clinicians should make them understand that not going ahead with treatment or cancelling an appointment will have negative impacts in the future.

3. Use technology wisely

The new generation of intra-oral and external cameras have made an enormous difference in educating patients. Having the ability to show them an image of what is happening in and around their mouth has made it much easier to deepen their understanding and awareness of their condition. “The more awareness you can impart in the treatment room, the easier it’s going to be for the front office to keep the appointment,” says Moberger. 

Jetty Dental is a relatively new business in Coffs Harbour, NSW. Owner/principal dentist Dr Paul Crichton and his practice manager wife Selina have found that their new practice management software, Exact, has been a big help in reducing cancellations. 

“We now send out an SMS reminder a few days prior to the patient’s appointment. The vast majority keep their appointment but we have plenty of time to re-book appointments that are cancelled.”—Selina Crichton, practice manager, Jetty Dental 

“We now send out an SMS reminder a few days prior to the patient’s appointment,” says Selina. “The vast majority keep their appointment but we have plenty of time to re-book appointments that are cancelled.”

4. Show empathy

If a patient calls to cancel, the first response from front-office staff must be to show empathy. It’s important that the patient doesn’t feel bad about their cancellation.

Showing empathy and understanding will get the patient on side immediately. The staff member can then gently steer them towards keeping the appointment. Let them know how long it will be before they can be re-booked. Discuss what they are scheduled to receive and the importance of the procedure. Ask them if they understand that missing a clean can lead to bigger problems later. 

As Jetty Dental has become busier, patients are realising that cancelling an appointment means a long wait. “When we first opened in 2016, patients could re-book within a week,” says Selina. “Now it’s about a seven-week wait if they need to re-book. Patients now understand it’s a pretty big deal to cancel an appointment.”

5. A bigger problem?

Be aware that a patient who consistently keeps cancelling appointments may be signalling that something else entirely is wrong. They may have a dental phobia or financial problems. “Keeping notes in the patient file is critical,” says Moberger. “Every time they cancel or re-appoint, a note needs to be added to their file. Repeat offenders will often reveal information to front-office staff that they will not share with dentists.”

If the patient is anxious or suffering financial problems, a little empathy will go a long way. 

6. Cancellation policy

“Every practice should have a policy for when a patient cancels within 48 hours of their appointment,” says Moberger. “However, the policy could be waived the first time they cancel. The second time they cancel, a deposit towards their next treatment could be taken at the time of the appointment.”

It’s important to let patients know on the website, in the reception area and when booking by phone that the practice has a cancellation policy. Jetty Dental keeps a priority list of patients who would like their appointment to be sooner than when they are scheduled. As soon as they receive a cancellation, the front-office staff start contacting those on the short list.

At present, Jetty Dental re-books more than 95 per cent of cancelled appointments. “It’s so rare that when we have an empty slot, Paul takes it as an opportunity,” says Selina. “Having a little downtime in the middle of the day allows him to catch up on paperwork, call back specialists or send off referrals. Mind you, we wouldn’t be so easy-going if cancellations were a common event.” 


Phone strategies

Prime Practice’s Patric Moberger reveals his handy phone tips. If a patient calls to cancel…

  • Start by showing empathy—it might be a very legitimate reason for the cancellation.
  • Check the patient’s notes on their file. Have they cancelled before? What appointment are they trying to cancel?
  • Attempt to keep the appointment by deepening awareness. Use scarcity to help the patient understand that by cancelling, it might take some time before they can get a new appointment.
  • If the patient still wants to cancel and re-appoints, make a note of this in their file and inform them that the cancellation policy will be waived this time.
  • If no re-appointment, establish clear next steps and diary a follow-up call.
  • If you have a chronic canceller, take a deposit for the next appointment that goes towards the treatment they are receiving.

For more tips from Patric Moberger, go to Prime Practice Live online workshops at learn.primepractice.com.au/liveonline/

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