Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, patient volume in many dental practices has dropped considerably. According to the ADA Health Policy Institute, patient volume is hovering at about 80% of pre-COVID volume. This could have a detrimental effect on dental practices unless they take new and innovative approaches to maximize patient volume. While it will not be possible for patient volume to reach pre-COVID-19 levels anytime soon, it’s certainly possible to improve it and increase practice production. Otherwise, we estimate that practices may lose up to 15% of pre-COVID-19 production simply due to this one factor.
Five immediate steps to increase patient volume
1. Maximize scheduling opportunities.
Most practices have had a similar schedule and scheduling methodology for many years. However, COVID-19 was a major game changer. Analyzing the schedule and determining how to build a new schedule to maximize patient volume will be the first critical step toward increasing patient volume.
Let’s look at an example. If a practice can save 10 minutes per hour for four days a week it will increase the available time for doctor production by the equivalent of 32 days or two months per year (for practices working four-day weeks). Pre-COVID-19 this was not essential as practices were generally performing well and dentists were satisfied with performance. However, COVID-19 has made it essential for practices to maximize every opportunity, including saving 10 minutes per hour. Practices can start to find this time savings by implementing procedural time studies to get a true picture of how much time is needed per procedure and then implement additional methodology to decrease doctor time per patient appointment. This could include delegation of more administrative responsibilities to dental assistants or allowing doctors to use multiple rooms (known as accelerated scheduling).
2. Use accelerated scheduling.
Accelerated scheduling refers to doctors using multiple rooms. Most practices believe they already have this process in place, but they’re not actually using it or implementing it properly. In a true accelerated scheduling model, a doctor working two rooms would maintain very similar production in each room. A doctor working three rooms would maintain similar production for rooms one and two and 50% of that production in room three. It’s also important for each room to have a dedicated dental assistant so that the doctor can move between rooms and assistants can carry out procedures within their skill set when doctors aren’t in the room. One assistant per room maximizes the flow and efficiency of an accelerated scheduling model. If a practice can improve the accelerated scheduling model by 20-30%, the impact on patient volume and practice production will be significant.
3. Maximize available chair time.
In this era of lower volume, it’s essential to manage patient flow, scheduling and no-shows to maximize available chair time. If a patient misses an appointment or the chair time isn’t filled, it can never be recovered. Think of it this way. If a practice has a no-show rate of roughly 5% it creates open chair time that will cause the practice to lose one year of production for every 20 years that a dentist is in practice. Practices should immediately implement systems to train patients to keep appointments including confirmations at two weeks, two days, and two hours by text message and then follow-up systems for patients who miss appointments to retrain them as quickly as possible.
4. Investigate the use of teledentistry.
The point of this article isn’t necessarily to promote teledentistry, but to point out that there are now certain types of appointments that currently use chair time that may be moved to a virtual platform. These include certain emergency consultations, many postoperative visits and other forms of patient communication that don’t always require an in-office visit. Teledentistry has become more prominent and we believe that new and better versions of teledentistry models will be emerging with additional benefits, such as communication with dental insurers. It’s very early in the development and adoption of this methodology, but it could play a role in increasing available chair time for productive procedures. This will directly improve lower patient volume. (Read the ADA Policy on Teledentistry.)
5. Prioritize the schedule.
Practices should prioritize schedules based on the size of the case or need of the patient. By prioritizing productive procedures to be scheduled earlier, practice production can be maintained, and certain procedures can wait a few weeks or even longer without any negative affect for the patient. This is important when considering that lower patient volume directly impacts practice production and steps should be taken to maximize production to keep the practice healthy and strong from a financial standpoint. Otherwise, practices may find their revenue and profit challenges are significant and impact the ability of the practice to invest in creating a better future.
Chair time is now the single most valuable resource in the dental practice. With lower patient volume, practices need to rethink and re-strategize how they build and manage their schedules. These recommendations will benefit any practice in increasing patient volume and improving practice performance.
About the Author
Dr. Levin is the CEO and founder of Levin Group, a practice management consulting firm that has worked with over 30,000 clients to increase production. He has written 67 books and over 4,000 articles and regularly presents seminars in the U.S. and around the world. To contact Dr. Levin or to join the 40,000 dental professionals who receive his Practice Production Tip of the Day, visit www.levingroup.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.