Dental Patients Arriving Late Policy
Dental patients arriving late can cause stress for everyone in the dental practice. It’s stressful, because we feel it is out of our control. And although we cannot force our patients to be on time, we can create a system to manage late patients. This is truly a team decision and a team effort. But we will take a look at the role of the dental front office in this too.
There are many opinions on how to best manage this. And my opinion is just that. It’s my opinion. And nothing more. But I would like to convey one big message above all others. We are all humans living in a crazy world. And although the dental practice is a business with a schedule, the focus must be on people. We as dental professionals sometimes keep our patients waiting too. So.. what do we do?
Do What’s Best!
Ideally, we want to do what’s best for everyone. It’s important to consider the team first! Many times, a dentist or dental practice places consideration on patients first. I believe the needs of the team trump those of the patients. So, when the dental office creates their individual policy, try to think of the team. The system is created or modified to protect the team.
Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look at the front office team first. And consider how the front office will manage the late patient. Next, we will look at what the back office can do to provide the absolute best service possible. Consider as well, the patients who wait in the reception area.
Think globally here. And it all begins and ends with kindness. When we extend kindness, politeness, and professionalism, that’s the best we can be.
Patients Arriving Late Infrequently
It’s a crazy world out there! With so many possibilities in each and every day! And every now and then, something comes along we just didn’t see coming! It happens in our patients’ days too! That business meeting that ran late. The sick child that needed to get home. A flat tire on the free-way. You name it, and it happens. First, let’s talk about the patient who hasn’t been late before. But today just isn’t their best day.
Patients don’t want to miss their appointments. For the most part, our patients want to keep their appointments. They have marked their calendars and made arrangements. So the late patient may not call the dental office to let us know of their delay. They are hoping with all hope that they will make it before it’s too late. But that doesn’t mean the dental office can’t take the upper hand. In fact, we must lead the way.
Call every patient 5 minutes after their scheduled time. If a patient has not arrived by their appointment time, call them! You may just get their voicemail, but try. If you do get their voicemail, leave a message. “Hi John. This is April at Dr. Brown’s dental office. Checking to see if you might be on your way to your appointment. I hope everything is okay. Hopefully we will see you soon. Our number here is 888-8888. Thank you.”
The other scenario is your patient answered the phone. And they tell you they were stuck in traffic but they are on their way. They expect to be about 15 minutes late for their appointment. There are apologies and promises that they will be there soon. How does the dental practice best handle this? Let’s take a look.
Dental Patients Arriving Late: Action Steps
Dental patients arriving late are greeted warmly! It’s important that the dental front office greet the patient well. This is not the time to punish or condemn anyone. We are greeting a friend! And we are happy to see them. Most likely, your patient already knows they are late. And they will most likely apologize profusely. Tell your patient you are glad they made it. Avoid saying “it’s okay”.
Even if treatment can’t be completed, this discussion doesn’t happen at the front desk. The clinician should take the patient back to the treatment room before any discussion takes place. After all, the this is their appointment time. Maybe there is time to still do something dental! But if not, let this conversation happen in a quiet treatment room. Not in a busy reception and front office area!
Adjust Scheduled Treatment If Possible
Hygienists may still be able to complete some of the scheduled procedures. If this is a hygiene visit, perhaps the hygienist can still take x-rays. Or maybe complete the perio-charting. Perhaps the patient can have their cleaning and be rescheduled for exam and x-rays. These are all things the dentist should decide. And it will depend on the oral health of the patient. As well as the amount of time that remains in the appointment.
Restorative appointments may need to be changed. Hopefully, there is enough time to do something with your patient. Try to salvage some of the appointment if you can. Can you take an impression? Or a small restoration? Is there a way to complete the appointment? Even if you have to start the appointment and come back to the patient a little later. Whatever the dentist decides, it’s important to bring the patient back and have a conversation about a change in the scheduled appointment in the treatment area.
The Chronically Late Patient
Every dental practice has one of these. Hopefully just one! As one is more than enough to manage well. And don’t be fooled. This particular patient has poor time management everywhere! They are not just late with your office. But in order to decide how to best manage your patient, we have to weigh in some other factors as well.
First let’s define chronically late. Is the patient late for their dental appointments more than 50% of the time. If so, I would guess the patient has a chronic problem. And one they may not be able to fix easily. If a patient is late less than 50% of the time, they may also have a time management issue, and are working to correct it. Let’s delve a little deeper into managing the chronic issue.
Weigh the tardiness against all other aspects of the relationship. Is this patient someone the office enjoys? Do you find the patient complies with treatment? And does the patient pay for service at the time? Or are there other negative pieces of this relationship that weigh in against your patient? If there is even one other negative factor, I would consider letting the relationship go. There are better ways to spend your energy.
Do yourself a favor and ultimately everyone else too! But engaging in a conflict is not the way to handle this. Don’t bring this up with the patient in conversation. In fact, I would send a letter. If you don’t know the laws in your state on how to dismiss a patient, find out. Then make sure you keep the dismissal polite and professional.
But what about that patient who you want to keep? Maybe they are not chronically late or maybe they are! But you like the patient. Everyone likes the patient. They schedule treatment and they pay for it too! Their schedule is just tough or they get busy… or whatever it is. How can we have them not upset our schedule? We can’t. But if we keep them in our lives, we’ve got to be prepared and decide just how we want to do this.
Dental Patients Arriving Late: Schedule Management
First, I would call 5 minutes past the appointment time. That’s a given for every patient who isn’t in the office 5 minutes past their appointment time. If you are sent to voicemail, leave a message. If you have the ability to text, send a text. And if you can send an email, do that too. Try every venue available to you. You can text or email something like this: “Hi John. This is April @ Dr. Brown’s Dental Office. Checking to see if you are on your way? We had you scheduled for 2:00! Please let us know. Thank You.”
Consider adding extra time to the appointment when you schedule. Or schedule the patient at a time during the day that is least likely to cause a big problem. Never schedule the patient on a day that is over-booked. And don’t hesitate to let your patient know that their scheduled treatment may not be completed if they arrive late. If you make a conscious decision to keep this patient on board, it is going to have an impact. Sometimes the benefits do outweigh the impact. Only you can decide that.
Don’t keep other patients waiting. No matter what it takes, don’t keep other patients waiting. It’s just not fair. Do what you can in the time that you have and move on. Most of your patients will arrive on time. We tend to focus on those who don’t. And often we remember the bumps during the day we had to hurdle. Avoid having a written policy for late patients. This implies you have late patients. Let’s keep it positive!
Actions speak louder than words. Which is why I say, it’s best to not complete scheduled treatment for a late patient. Do what you can in the time that remains, and bring them back another day. We can be kind and polite and professional and still invite our patient back another day to finish. Yes, we run the risk that they will disrupt our schedule one more day. And we also take this opportunity to give our patient a second chance. This might just be the turning point.
The Role Of The Dental Front Office
So, what exactly is the role of the dental front office? First and foremost to be kind, courteous, and professional. And to avoid all manner of judgement, criticism, and condemnation. Our role at the dental front office is to gather information, advise the team of what’s happening, and to be ready.
Replace “it’s okay” with “I understand”. The last thing we want to do is encourage tardiness. And it’s never “okay”. Even if there is a very good reason someone is late. But keep a positive tone and vibe. And it’s better to “understand” a patient’s reason than to fully accept it. Our role at the front office is critical. Our tone is more important than I can say.
Call five minutes past the appointment!! That’s the biggie here! The sooner the team knows there is a problem, the better. And honestly, texting is the way most of our patients communicate. So, if you don’t have a communication system you are in love with, you’ve got to see this!!