Sometime early March 2020, I guided our loyal and enthusiastic practice ambassador, Mrs. Jones, to my operatory for her 6 months adult prophylaxis appointment. Mrs. Jones is the type of a patient we all would love to have in our practices: cheery, easy going, compliant, and non-anxious. We always look forward to seeing her in our practice. However, on that March day, there was something different about Mrs. Jones. She moved with reservation down the hall to get to my operatory, she was very timid, and anxious. She put down her purse by the window and slowly settled in the chair. I was perplexed. As I set across her, knee to knee, eye to eye, I asked “Mrs. Jones, it might just be me, but you seem to not be yourself today. Is everything ok?” She looked at me for what felt like a long minute and said, “To be honest with you, I am a bit anxious to be here today. I just don’t want to get sick.” As I leaned slightly forward and gently touched her leg, I said “Mrs. Jones, I totally understand and so happy that you made the decision to come in today to take care of yourself.” I continued saying, “Let me share with you what precautions we are taking as an office to ensure the safety of all of our patients and ourselves.”
COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge disrupter to our daily and business lives. Many take this disruption of our norm with much anxiety; others see it as a blessing in disguise. It won’t be too long until you will be welcoming your team, new and existing patients into your practice. This is an amazing opportunity for a grand re-opening of your dental office!
Many patients, much like Mrs. Jones, fully understand the importance of proceeding with their preventative and restorative dental needs but are very anxious to return to an environment that has been classified as HIGH risk exposure category by Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is your devoted practice ambassadors that will return as soon as your doors will re-open because they TRUST you. But what about those that are skeptical? How are you communicating all of the safety precautions you are putting in place to keep your patients and your team safe and healthy? How are you placing your practice as THE safe practice to trust for treatment post COVID-19?
Purposeful and continuous communication with your new and existing patients is the key for a successful grand re-opening of your practice. Your communication should convey specific actions that you and your team are taking to secure safety and health of your patients as they enter through your doors. It’s imperative to demonstrate that you are following the CDC, ADA, and OSHA infection control and interim guidelines. Detailed communication relays a message of priority and care that will provide a sense of safety to your new and existing patients.
What Message to Communicate?
2 key messages to communicate to your patients at this time are Infection Control and Post COVID-19 Patient Experience.
If you haven’t already done so, designate an infection control coordinator role in your practice. Responsibilities for this role should include:
- Maintaining awareness of frequently updated regulatory changes from CDC, ADA, and OSHA.
- Documenting, implementing, and monitoring proper infection control protocol in the office
- Informing patients on all safety precautions and protection measures the office is implementing
- Monitoring office inventory for infection control products and PPE supplies.
- Communicating constantly with supply vendors to ensure ample inventory of PPE and infection control supplies for proper practice
Inform your patients that you have an infection control coordinator. Outline infection control and sterilization protocols that have been implemented. This might include:
- Hospital level sterilization process – Let your patients know that you are utilizing hospital grade sterilization wipes/sprays and placing protective barriers on all equipment used during treatments. Furthermore, patients need to know that you are giving adequate time between patients for room disinfection and aerosol reduction in the treatment room. Proper “spray/wipe/spray” disinfection method takes about 15-20 minutes.
- Aerosol reduction during treatment – Inform patients that tools such as ultrasonic or high-speed handpiece that produce high aerosol, will be used only when needed and with highest standard of aerosol reduction. This might include a high-volume evacuation system, Isolite, rubber dam use and presence of an assistant to help reduce aerosol production during treatments.
- Discuss the role of PPE and how it enables infection control. Let the patients know that N95 or level 3 masks with face shields are being implemented. Assure your patients that PPE (masks, gloves, gowns, and etc.) are being changed between patients to reduce patient contamination. Inform them that they will be wearing gloves in the office if that’s part of your protocol.
Post COVID-19 Patient Experience
At least initially upon return to work, procedural changes will impact the patient experience. Inform your patients on each of the process changes and how it mitigates risk. You should consider process changes in the following areas:
- Confirmation process:
- Appointment confirmation will happen over the phone. Health pre-screening questions4 provided by CDC and personal/insurance information will be updated at that time.
- Identify if the patient is safe to come into your office. If they have been exposed or around someone that might present with symptoms of cough, fever, or flu-like symptoms.
- Add online patient forms to allow patients to complete new patient paperwork and medical information digitally. Direct patients to complete it prior to their appointment.
- This will limit the amount of time the patient needs to spend in the office.
- Patient check-in process:
- To adhere to the patient proximity guidelines, patients are asked to call at the time of arrival and wait in the car until they are ready to be seen. Upon entering the office, patients will be asked to sanitize their hands, their temperature will be taken, and they will pre-rinse with anti-microbial mouth rinse.
- Latest CDC guidelines suggests that there are no documented evidence exists at this time to support the pre-procedural rinses to reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. However, previous studies have shown that 0.12% Chlorhexidine drastically reduces bacterial load when used as a pre procedural mouth rinse; hence, reduces hazardous aerosol.
- Depending on your team size, identify if you will have one designated person that will be in charge of check-in process or rotate between roles.
- Payment process:
- This is a great opportunity to have patients pay with contactless methods: contactless credit card, Apple Pay, Google Pay.
- Patients can also pay over the phone with their credit cards after treatment from their cars.
- These steps are taken to reduce patient time in the office after treatment and prepare the office for the next patient entering.
- Scheduling processes:
- Hygiene scheduling after the appointment can be completed in the hygiene treatment room.
- What about treatment plan presentation and scheduling? At this interim time, treatment plans should be emailed to the patients and cost discussed over the phone. Appointment could be set up prior or after cost discussion…much dependents on urgency of procedure and patient comfort.
Communication Channels to Use
3 key communication channels to connect with your new or existing patients during COVID-19 crisis are website, personal letter/email, and social media.
Your online presence lets your existing and potential patients know that you are at the forefront of what is happening to keep them safe.
If you haven’t already, create a dedicated page for COVID-19. Sections to consider including but are not limited to:
- Infection control
- Post COVID-19 Patient Experience
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Details on the Infection Control and Post COVID-19 Patient Experience sections are explained above. For FAQ section consider answering questions that will give patients a peace of mind and give patients clear direction on what to expect prior, during, and after their appointment. Some questions to include might be:
- How do I know the office is safe and fully disinfected?
- Have any of your patients tested positive for the coronavirus?
- Should I come to my dental appointment alone?
- Is it safe to sit in the waiting room?
Teledentisry is a new way of practice in dentistry. Provide a simple explanation of how it works, its benefits to the patient, and steps to schedule an appointment. Simplify the process by writing the content in question and answer format. For example:
- What is Teledentistry?
- How do I schedule a teledentistry appointment?
- What will happen during my teledentistry appointment?
- Will I be charged a fee for my teledentistry appointment?
For the ease of scheduling, add a “Schedule Teledentistry Appointment” button that will direct patients to the teledentistry portal or web page.
Regularly update the page as circumstances continue to change and promote new procedures and services.
A website can become personable when visitors hear messages from you. Be open to posting short videos of yourself simply checking in with updates and changes, or “we are here for you” type of messages. Videos do not have to be professionally made and could be from 30-60 seconds long. Simply have fun with it!
Letter/email to your patients
An email or a letter is a personalized approach of communication that allows for an emotional connection with your patients. It’s a great way to assure your patients that you are going above and beyond to ensure their health and safety and can’t wait to see them soon.
Social Media Presence
Social media presence is a unique opportunity to deepen a relationship with your audience, reach people looking for information, and increase your brand awareness. Now is a great time to build an online following and put out content that is needed. This is where you can mix facts and emotions in your posts. For example: “Concerned about returning to the dentist post Covid-19? Take comfort in knowing that we are taking all of the precautions to welcome you back in a safe environment!”
This is a great way to let your audience know that you hear their concerns and you are in this together!
Have a designated team member be in charge of your social media platform and post 2-3 times a week to stay connected.
By taking the time to communicate clearly to your patients, you can put them at ease and improve their patient experience. Adding a dedicated COVID-19 page to your website, sending a personal letter/email, and updating your social media presence frequently, can turn your patients into your practice ambassadors and help you prepare for a successful grand re-opening of your practice.