Dental Patient Retention 101

December 19, 2017 10:05 pm Published by Leave your thoughts


Why do some dental practices lose patients and others don’t? As a dental consultant, I’m approached with this question very frequently by practices that are losing patients, which they have to try harder and harder to replace.

Sometimes, the basics aren’t in order. There might be problems in administration, an ineffective marketing strategy, or a complete lack of an online presence. Many times, though, those boxes are ticked. What is the “X” factor that causes otherwise good dentists to suffer in patient retention?

The answer is in our intuition.

Don’t Blink

We can look into a related field to understand the answer.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink describes how we can use very brief observations to make snap judgments about everyday situations and be surprisingly accurate. The book uses surgical malpractice to illustrate this point; it’s a good and relatable example to dentistry.

Imagine that you are employed by an insurance company, and your job is to evaluate a surgeon to determine how likely they are to bring in malpractice suits that your company would have to cover. How would you make your evaluation?

One might consider education, experience level, or skillsets to be the most important factors. As it turns out, that’s not the case.

As Dr. Ambady has illustrated in her research, this is an area that is easily thin-sliced. You don’t even need to know anything about medicine or research to make an accurate determination about the likelihood of a particular doctor to be sued.

She formed two groups of equally qualified surgeons, one group being comprised entirely of doctors that have been sued for malpractice two or more times, and the second a group of doctors that had never been sued.

Dr. Ambady examined whether or not strangers could identify which group was which, using only brief samples of routine conversations with patients. Using only 40 seconds of conversation that involved no medical information, test subjects were consistently able to pick out the claims and no-claims surgeons.

The explanation lies in something rather simple: MOST people don’t sue doctors they like. It’s not about who makes mistakes—it’s about who fails to show empathy and concern for their patients, setting the stage for a malpractice suit. Then there are those people who are looking for what they might perceive as ‘easy money.’

While we can all learn from this lesson, I believe this is also the reason that many otherwise good practices can’t keep dental patients. How information is given matters, and one of the things your patients will look for the most is your concern for their problems.

Put the Care in “Patient Care”

Never underestimate the power of even a brief encounter with a patient. Here are a few tips your practice can incorporate that will help:

  • Create a “comfort” package. Make a patient feel cared for with a blanket, a headset for music or TV, and anything else to make them comfortable.
  • Practice active listening. That means to pay attention, mirror the patient’s body language, and provide appropriate feedback. If a patient says, “My grandparents have dentures and that’s the last thing I want,” you might reply, “So you’re saying you would prefer implants?”
  • Introduce them to team members. When someone new comes on board, introduce them to established patients.
  • Follow up. This is particularly effective when the doctor calls after a significant case. Patients remember when their dentist sends a handwritten note or calls to check in on them.

Your goal should be to create a great patient experience, every time.


~Linda O’Grady

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