Positive patient engagement for a lasting impression

The patient experience is an integral part of the treatment process. Neil Hillyard explains how engaging your patient makes a lasting impression.

In our previous four articles, we have explored patient engagement and orthodontic marketing. The aim – getting the patient to attend to learn more about their options for starting orthodontic treatment at your practice.

In this article, we will explore the patient engagement activities that need to be considered during the consultation.

First impressions count

From the moment the patient approaches your practice for the first time, they are forming impressions about the likely experience of undertaking treatment with you. If seeing a new patient welcome them by ensuring things such as medical history forms are ready. Consider the experience from the patient’s perspective and undertake a walk-through taking in as much detail as possible. If your website talks about attention to detail and a comfortable, relaxing waiting area, the patient experiences this.

A new patient may feel apprehensive when visiting a practice for the first time so take time with them and appreciate their feelings. Some patients may require more support than others, it isn’t easy opening up about insecurities they may have held for a long time. If your practice has a treatment coordinator, this is the ideal opportunity for a friendly, relaxed conversation in preparation for the consultation. You should always allow time for this process.

The consultation

During his presentation at the British Orthodontic Conference in London in 2018, Professor Jonathan Sandler described a consultation as a meeting of two experts, the clinician and the patient. There is a great deal of merit in reflecting on this statement. Does the process you use, and may have used for many years, respects the expertise of the patient? Remember, the patient is the expert when it comes to selecting a treatment suited to the outcomes they hope to achieve.

Patients will usually have a reasonably good idea about what their options are and some of the merits of one of more orthodontic solutions. This will be through exposure to advertising, their research and what they would have learned from your website and conversation with your team.  During the consultation, you need to explore the patient’s understanding of the concerns they are presenting with, the types of treatments they would be willing to consider and the outcomes they wish to achieve.

Understanding the patient

Let’s break these down and explore them further. A consultation will very often start with the patient describing what it is about their teeth that bothers them. This might include crowding, irregular spacing or a poor bite. Usually the consultation quickly moves on at this point to a clinical examination. But it is always worth exploring this first part in more detail to gain a better understanding of the impact their teeth is having on them. You can gain a greater awareness and therefore commitment from the patient when asking questions such as ‘what is it about your smile that you do not like’ and ‘how does this make you feel’ or ‘what impact does this have on you’. From a patient’s perspective, it also shows you have a genuine interest in them as a person, which is one of the key areas when considering improving patient engagement.

Gain an insight

When asking about their thoughts about different brace types, remember the patient would have already undertaken some research. They may have been exposed to marketing. This is likely to have helped them to reach a decision about the treatment of choice. To help guide them towards the best option, you’ll need to gain an insight into their understanding of the merits of their preferred system. If a patient states they are looking for aligners. (Or more likely will simply name one system.) You could explore what it is about aligners that appeals to them. If  they’re looking for something discreet, you’ll be able to explore alternatives such as clear labial braces or lingual braces. Both of which meet their criteria.

Using typodonts is a great way to highlight the merits of each brace type but there is something even better. That is having a member of the team in treatment and letting them show brace and share their experience. Patients welcome the opportunity to talk to someone else in treatment. Often they may consider the quality of advice received  more authentic and influential in their decision making.

The final area to explore is the desired outcomes from treatment. Using the information you gained earlier about their motivations for treatment, you should explore what the patient is looking to achieve and how they are hoping to feel once their treatment is complete. Whilst there is much debate about how orthodontics impacts other social factors, most patients would want to feel more confident about their smile and for it to have a positive impact on their work or personal life.

Options to achieve the desired outcome

After completing the clinical examination and assessment of the patient’s suitability for treatment, the conversation can now resume where you can provide advice as to all the options available to achieve the outcome the patient had previously highlighted. It is important that you refer back to the earlier discussion. This will help the patient understand the relevance of the options and how it relates to their motivation to seek treatment.

Once you’ve confirmed the various ways the patient can achieve their desired outcome, discuss the merits of each system. Then, where possible, make sure you refer back to what they told you earlier about their preferred choice. This is where typodonts are useful. Enabling you to visually move pieces in and out of conversation until the patient is left with the best option. (Or a  combination of options to achieve their desired outcomes.)

Gaining commitment

At this stage you are looking to gain commitment for whatever the next stage is. This may be a records appointment if the patient is ready to start treatment. Another appointment with a treatment coordinator if they require time to chat through the decision with members of their family. Or a follow up conversation if they are still undecided about proceeding. Whatever the outcome, it is important that there is agreement on the next step. Don’t leave it to ‘we will hear from you’ as inevitably, the patient will lose motivation and not come back.

Importance of consultation

One question frequently asked is whether a consultation should be free or whether a fee should be applied? There is no one answer. Providing a consultation costs money and it is reasonable to expect the practice to recover costs where possible. Charging a fee can be a barrier to some patients and may encourage them to seek a free appointment elsewhere. But, if they are price sensitive at this point, are they likely to commit to an expensive orthodontic treatment course? Some options to consider might include a free consultation with a treatment coordinator. Followed by a paid consultation with the specialist or a fee that is refundable upon starting treatment. It is a good idea to base it on what nearby competitors are doing and how much value you can build into the consultation process.

We must not overlook the importance of the consultation. It’s the start of the personal relationship with the patient, an opportunity to showcase your practice. Monitor your conversion rate and reflect on what you can improve upon in the future to make this most effective.

In our next article, we look at patient engagement during treatment: how to support your patients to advocate your practice.

In the meantime, check out this from Orthodontist Dr Amina Abdel-Karim.

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