Insights from the Outside: Critical Patient Conversations

Insights from the Outside is a group of practicing clinician practice owners. This is a diverse group from many medical specialties, including dentistry, veterinary medicine, cosmetic surgery, ophthalmology, audiology and optometry. This group was uniquely created by CareCredit for the purpose of capturing and sharing “best practices” to some of the common challenges all healthcare business owners face, such as attracting new patients, the patient experience, patient retention, social media, team training and empowerment and much more.

In this article, dentist Dr. Howard Ong, owner of Seal Beach Dentistry and NOLA Aronson, owner of Advanced Audiology, discuss how they handle critical patient conversations.
Why are the team’s communication skills so important to the success of the practice?
Dr.Ong: The way your team communicates is a direct reflection of your culture and brand. Often patients interact more with your team than they do you, the clinician. So your team is your “voice” to patients. And what patients want to know is that they are welcome, that they will be expertly cared for clinically and relationally, and they have chosen the right practice.

NOLA: People often come in our practice door with elevated emotions. They are stressed, concerned and anxious. First and foremost, they want to feel welcomed and comfortable. When people are emotional, it’s harder for them to make great decisions regarding their hearing health. The team is responsible for communicating empathy and expertise to patients, so they can relax and be confident they have chosen the right practice for their hearing health needs.
Which conversations are the most critical?
NOLA: Every conversation the team has with patients is an opportunity to build relationships, resulting in treatment acceptance, patient satisfaction, retention and referrals. But there are three critical conversations that directly impact the health of the practice and patients, which are 1) the new patient call, 2) the clinical results and recommendations discussion and 3) the financial conversation.

Dr.Ong: I agree with Nola. Those are the three top conversations and the most important thing to communicate in all three of those conversations is value. When it comes to any type of product or service, people invest in things they value – their smile, their hearing, their relationships.
Can you give me some key strategies for a successful new patient call?
Dr.Ong: The new patient call is the first opportunity to share with patients how we can provide them with excellent care. We want to communicate that they are important to us, so first, never put a new patient on hold. There should be a plan in place that enables the person handling the call to let everyone else on the administrative team know they cannot be interrupted and will need back-up for other incoming phone calls or other patient care needs for the duration of the call. Second, don't assume you know what the new patient wants or needs. Ask the appropriate questions and let them share their story. Validate their concerns. Capture as much information as possible, which means writing detailed notes about the conversation. Third, be empathetic, not a “know-it-all” and include your patient on the healthy journey. And finally, don’t promise the world. Set appropriate expectations and never over promise. People are happy when you exceed expectations and are, conversely, upset when you don’t meet them.

NOLA: We do many of those same strategies. It’s important to remember that we are communicating by phone, so it’s important what we say and how we say it. My team is trained to smile every time they answer the phone. Smiles can be heard and felt by the person on the other end of the line. We believe that healthcare is personal, so we always introduce ourselves by name and we ask them how we can help them HEAR today. We want to let people know we are there to listen and to help. Before you can solve a problem, you have to listen and respond with empathy. Everyone has different needs, different situations and, therefore, needs to be treated like unique individuals. In terms of best practices, don’t interrupt and speak clearly and slowly, without talking down to people. We have found one of the best ways to improve our team’s phone skills is by having them professionally recorded, so we can listen and celebrate what’s working and retrain where needed. We also have success metrics where we evaluate the effectiveness of our phone skills by measuring how many patients schedule, schedule appropriately and keep their appointment.

Dr.Ong: That’s a great point. We also track the conversion of new patient calls to scheduled and completed appointment. We don’t record calls, but we do ask for patient feedback to identify opportunities for improvement.
What are some communication techniques for the clinical treatment recommendation conversation?
NOLA: The success of the treatment conversation starts before the examination. When the patient is escorted to the back, we take a thorough health history that includes capturing how the patient’s hearing health is affecting their daily lives, what specific situations they find most frustrating and what they think the change will be with better hearing. We then do testing and share with the patient and their spouse the results of the audiogram, relating it to the frustrations and situations they have shared with us. “Mrs. Jones, no wonder you are frustrated that your husband doesn’t seem to be paying attention to you. As you can see with the audiogram, Mr. Jones is missing those sounds.” The next step is to provide personalized solutions and pricing. We use a chart that clearly explains the benefits they will enjoy at each technology and price level and let them know we have solutions for all budgets. Then we let patients know that because we want to help them change their lives, we can make it possible for them to try the lowest and highest-end technology so they can compare the results and benefits and make a more informed decision. It is a no-obligation trial period. Be a real person, an advocate for the patient and let them know it’s their decision to make, and your role is to provide information and guidance.

Dr.Ong: That is exactly it. This is a critical conversation because the way you talk with – not to – the patient will tell them if you have listened and if you are trustworthy. One thing to note is this conversation should happen in the treatment room or chair side because anywhere else the patient loses focus. Patients are more accountable to the clinical setting than an administrative one. We believe that we are there to educate, not lecture and we want patients to know they are not alone so we share similar patient stories and experiences. People like and respond to stories more than facts. Visual aids can be extremely helpful because often patients believe what they see, not what they hear. Like Nola, a big part of the conversation is understanding the goals of the patient and showing them how treatment will help them achieve their goals. Show and tell them their clinical needs and how that can impact their health and lives. Then show and tell them solutions. We know the treatment conversation is going well when patients ask questions. They are engaged and curious. We know it’s not going well when the only question they have is about cost.

NOLA: That’s insightful. We have found that when people ask about cost or say, “that’s very expensive,” our role is to agree that it is an investment in their health, not to offer cheaper solutions or discounts. Just because people believe it’s expensive doesn’t mean that they are not willing to pay for it, especially if you can find a comfortable way to fit the cost into their family finances.
Which brings up the final critical conversation, the financial conversation. How do you make the money talk a win-win for your practice and patients?
NOLA: Although there is a focused discussion on cost and payment options, we are happy to talk about it any time the patient is. The financial conversation is about communicating value and enabling patients to say yes. We add a lot of value into our high-end hearing health solutions – free batteries, a free Bluetooth device, free quarterly cleanings and adjustments, a 3-year warranty and trade-in value of $500 – because we know the better the technology, the better the result. To enable patients to choose the higher-end technology, we accept the CareCredit healthcare credit card. If the patients hear and understand the value, can experience the benefits through the no-obligation trial, then it’s just about fitting the cost comfortably into their lives.

Dr.Ong: The only time to have a financial conversation is after the patient has agreed that they value the benefits of the care you are recommending. One of the most important things to do is be prepared to answer questions about the clinical care, insurance contributions and payment solutions. One thing you don’t want to do is assume the patient’s ability to pay. Similar to what NOLA said, just because the patient says, “That’s expensive,” doesn’t mean they don’t have the means to pay for it. A great financial conversation reinforces what the clinical team has recommended, offers fees that coincide with care, and provides solutions such as sharing how insurance contributes to care or how CareCredit can help alleviate any stress to their budget by enabling them to pay monthly. Patients are often more interested in knowing what a monthly payment might be, rather than the total cost of care. Ultimately, the patient is the decision maker and is in control. We are there to, again, advocate and guide them through the process, helping them achieve their health goals.    

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