The Forgotten Patients

If you want to see how well your practice is doing, take a look at your patient retention and you will get an accurate account.

Updated 6/30/20

I don’t know of one practice that has patients lined up outside the front door waiting to come in to get dentistry. Our public is not as excited about dentistry as we may want to believe. Practices are focusing on getting patients in the front door with little attention on the best patients: the ones that have benefited from their services in the past.

Patients are falling through the cracks in the majority of practices. Patient retention is averaging 55% or less. If you want to see how well your practice is doing, take a look at your patient retention and you will get an accurate account. Are more patients leaving through the back door than coming in through the front?

When I ask dentists how they would like to improve their practice, a common response is, “I need more patients.” They are usually concerned about patient flow, but they skip key practice management protocols to keep patients coming back. These forgotten patients know you, they know your team, they know where you are located, and they consider YOU their dentist. It is not unusual to find another practice hidden in a single practice. I am referring to patients in need of a recall appointment or other treatment that has been diagnosed.

Every practice must know that retaining patients is vital to practice expansion and viability. Every person on the team must know that the existing patients are the most important part of the practice. Work on adding value to visits and building stronger relationships with your current patients. My experience has been that the longer the patient stays away, the less likely it is that they will return to your practice. Many are already embarrassed about their mouth. The more time goes by, the more embarrassed they become about putting it off, so they go somewhere else.

There are 3 common ways patients can fall through the cracks.

1) Lack of a solid Recall and Reactivation System.

Most practices believe they have a recall system that is working. It is rare that I find this to be the case. You need to have a written plan that states who is responsible for what and has an exact schedule for cards and emails to be sent. This is so that staff members can follow the system exactly, month after month. Employees come and go; you need to have the system established so it can be easily duplicated by the next person.

Even if you are utilizing Dentrix services like automatic appointment reminders with Patient Engage, you should be aware of the timelines and templates you have set up so you can follow up with patients. Practices that have these systems in place continue to grow despite the economy.

2) Staff not familiar with dental software.

Every team member must be trained on the software. The knowledge they gain will greatly benefit the practice. This is an area where you cannot afford to cut corners. Your software allows you to do many things to help prevent patients from falling through the cracks.

For example, you can use the Continuing Care module to find patients who are overdue for recall appointments or the Treatment Manager to track patients with outstanding treatment plans. You and your team need to know how to take advantage of the resources you already have within Dentrix.

Schedule time with an in-office trainer to learn more about using the features in Dentrix.

3) Little or no communication from the practice.

It is important that you communicate with your patients using recall cards, recall emails, reactivation projects, birthday cards, holiday cards, etc. Some type of communication is better than none at all. The more you send out, the more appointments you will get. Dental teams are constantly looking to fill their schedules and improve new patient numbers. These actions are important, but the one thing that seems to be missing is a solid recall and reactivation program to close the back door and retain more patients. When these patients stay with your practice and are happy, they will refer more people like them.

Most practices are not doing enough on a consistent basis to keep patients coming back. Often times, patients are inactivated too soon. This is a huge mistake. They still have teeth and they still need a dentist. They are either going to see you or go somewhere else. Six months goes by fast, and people get busy with life. Don’t write them off. Use automatic continuing care due reminders in Patient Engage to keep the communication flowing to them.

One of the most important things you can do to build a practice is to put your attention on your current patient base. I recommend that you do a reactivation project similar to the one below every year.

Learn How Many Patients in Your Practice are Overdue

The average practice has 750 to 1000 patients overdue for their recall appointments. This is largely due to weak or lacking recall and reactivation systems. Patients get left behind because no one goes back and works the Continuing Care list and the practice stops sending cards and letters. Most practices are surprised to learn how many people need to come in, especially when they have open time on their schedule most every day.

To learn how many overdue patients you have in your practice, you can generate a list in the Continuing Care module. You want to find out how many patients haven’t been in for six months or longer, going back three to five years. Open the Appointment Book and click File > Continuing Care. Select View > All so that all patients who are overdue for recall appear on the list. From there you can set up a temporary view to narrow your search. Click Views > Temporary View. In the Last Visit Date Span group box, change the dates from 5 years to 6 months and click OK. You will be surprised at what you find.

Note: In order for patients to appear on the Continuing Care list, you must be attaching continuing care to patients in the Family File. If you are not attaching continuing care to patients, you can run the Inactive Patient list in the Office Manager to find patients with a last visit date that was at least six months ago.

Reactivation Project

Typically, a practice will start thinking about doing a reactivation project when they are desperate for patients. The reactivation attempts should be ongoing for a consistent flow of patients rather than a desperate move.

  1. Generate and print a list of patients that have not been in for at least six months and go back at least 3 to 5 years (See the steps above or read Continuing Care List View Options in Dentrix Help files to generate the list).
  2. Choose a recall card to be mailed to them. You may also consider combining this with emails to the patients. The recall cards and emails should look different than what you have been sending in the past.
  3. Customize your recall email message. Our surveys show the following message gets the best response. Dear [insert patient name], We miss seeing you in our office. As you know, when dental decay, gingivitis, periodontal disease or other complications are discovered in early stages, treatment is not complicated and costs are less. Please phone the office at [insert your phone number including area code] for a convenient appointment.
  4. Send the same card and/ or email message to the same group of patients two to three months in a row.

Work to implement a patient retention system to help close the back door and keep more patients. Focusing on patient retention will not only fill your schedule, it will provide a steady flow of patients, and you’ll have a much healthier practice.

Learn More

To learn more about generating the Continuing Care list, see the Continuing Care List View Options topic in Dentrix Help.

Visit to learn about other Dentrix features that can help you keep patients engaged and active in your practice.

By Sandy Pardue, Director of Consulting, Classic Practice Resources Inc.

Sandy Pardue is an internationally recognized lecturer, author and practice management consultant. She has assisted hundreds of doctors with practice expansion and staff development over the past 25 years. She is known for her comprehensive and interesting approach to dental office systems, and offers a refreshing point of view on how to become more efficient and productive in a dental practice. Sandy is Director of Consulting with Classic Practice Resources and was named a “Leader in Consulting” by Dentistry Today magazine for the past 10 years. She is also a consultant to leading dental companies for product evaluation and design.

Originally published in Dentrix Magazine, Spring 2012