It is no secret that having a good dental schedule is the key to running a successful practice. The schedule is the heartbeat of a dental practice, but it’s also the system most likely to give you a heart attack if not running properly.
What makes a patient schedule effective?
Like with any office management system, patient scheduling requires a set structure and regular maintenance. Think restorative procedures and routine hygiene — literally and figuratively, you need a balance of both in your schedule.
While organization is essential, your ability to anticipate, prevent, or react to scheduling issues is what makes a patient schedule truly successful. This is where science meets art in the pursuit of the ideal patient schedule.
By setting a detailed template for your dental schedule, you can fill more chairs and eliminate unnecessary stress in your office. This encourages open communication between your staff and patients, too. Improved patient care and higher profits for your practice mean everyone wins!
This guide to improving your patient schedule takes you from start to finish with tips for setting goals, making improvements, and avoiding the most common pitfalls. It’s time to stop working for your patient schedule and let it do the work for you!
Set Goals for Your Dental Schedule
Before jumping into updating scheduling templates and mailing out appointment reminders, take a step back. Focus on what you plan to accomplish. From there, set one simple goal for your patient schedule.
Your schedule should increase cost efficiency while decreasing stress for your staff. The easiest way to measure progress is to set a daily average production goal that ladders up to your monthly or annual goals.
And it’s easy!
Simply divide your monthly or annual production goal by the total number of working days (either full or partial) in that period. Depending on your growth plan, aim for 10-15% growth from the previous month or year.
This number gives your office manage a guiding light. It enables them to balance routine procedures, like cleanings and free consultations, with high ticket procedures, such as root canals or periodontal surgery.
Your growth number also helps indicate how your time is being spent in the office. Essentially, it provides extra clarity to your bottom line.
Make Scheduling a Team Effort
It’s easy to measure the success of your patient schedule with numbers from production. However, day-to-day improvements can also be measured by the stress levels of you and your staff.
Get your entire staff on board by having a quick meeting every morning to discuss the daily schedule. Dental assistants know better than anyone which patients are most likely to cancel, while also being able to predict potential scheduling conflicts.
It is also important to choose your scheduling manager carefully and regularly discuss both production and team goals with them. Laura Hatch, founder of Front Office Rocks, says that successful dental schedules result from a single word: attitude.
“The most productive schedules in any dental office have a single person responsible in the office and that person always has the right attitude,” says Hatch.
“On most days, the schedule is a challenge. It changes and fluctuates regularly, and those changes impact everyone in the office: the dentist, the entire team, and the patient.
“The right person managing the schedule knows it will never run perfectly, but approaches it as a game or a puzzle and wants to win.”
Quick Fixes for Your Dental Schedule
Switch to 10-minute increments
Compared to using 15-minute units on your patient schedule, 10-minute units keep appointment times highly accurate. They also encourage more granular thinking. Being even slightly more specific helps dental assistants communicate with dentists to cut appointment times.
Think about it this way: If you have three dental assistants who each save 15 minutes per day on an average working schedule, that gives your practice an extra 500 hours of time each year.
Perform time studies
Time for a gut check. Knowing exactly how long procedures take for each dentist, dental assistant, and auxiliary staff member keeps your patient schedule realistic and successful.
Spend two weeks timing (down to the minute) how long each procedure takes. At the end of the two weeks, you’ll have an average for each procedure to give your scheduling manager.
Prevent broken appointments and empty chairs
Staring at an empty chair for two hours is the ultimate scheduling nightmare.
Cancellations, no-shows, and ineffective patient communication all have a way of slowly creeping into your schedule. It happens to every dental practice.
However, by looking ahead and creatively reacting to these problems, your practice can reduce broken appointments while building trust with your patients.
We all know you can reduce cancellations and no-shows by sending reminders. But this is your chance to turn the standard practice on its head to make your patients feel special and less likely to break an appointment.
Send mailed reminders two weeks before the appointment date, and consider sending small samples of floss or a toothbrush with a personal reminder.
Remember, there are two things everyone loves: feeling important and free goodies!
As the appointment grows closer, text message reminders within 24 hours of the appointment add a nice, modern touch. These reminders are usually a hit with younger patients, with some practices even sending day-of reminder texts.
Put social media to work for your patient schedule
Don’t forget to use social media to your advantage when strategizing. This is where all of that work you put into your Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram comes into play.
Social media lets you play both offense and defense when it comes to filling holes in the schedule.
Post fun reminders for patients to schedule an annual cleaning, and share pictures of post-procedure smiles with a timely incentive (i.e. “Nothing says summer like a bright smile — click to make your appointment today!”).
By blasting out last-minute openings to your channels, social media can also help fill unexpected holes.
This can be done frequently on Twitter (the Wild West of social media), sparingly on Facebook (around 1-2 times per week to create a feeling of exclusivity while not clogging you page), and rarely on Instagram (keep this highly curated). Be sure to include links to make it easy for patients to fill the open appointment.
Practice Makes Perfect
Crafting a perfect dental schedule requires a conscious, collective effort by the entire team. However, with the right attitude you’ll soon notice the difference, both in team morale and with your bottom line.
“The reality of the schedule can be daunting, [but] a strong scheduler with a positive approach and a can-do willingness to make it work will thrive [all] while the office reaps the rewards of a productive day,” says Hatch.
Mastering the art and science of your patient schedule takes time. It is an ongoing process that brings new challenges every day. By embracing the challenge with these best practices, your dental office will be well-equipped for any situation.