How to Track New Patients To Your Dental Practice
Obtaining patient referrals is key to building a successful dental practice. Though marketing was probably not included in your professional curriculum, you have no doubt picked up a handful of methods for building your patient base through increased referrals: treating referring dentists to lunch, sending them birthday cards, distributing updated dental care information and hosting open houses, just to name a few.
As you invest time and money in various methods for developing your practice, are you keeping track of what works and what does not?
If you are like most dentists, you may know how each of your new patients has found your practice, but you are not recording the information in one place. Without a system of tracking referrals, how do you know which marketing efforts have been successful? And if you don’t know which marketing efforts are successful, how do you know where to spend your precious time and money in the future?
For example, if at the end of the year you can see that the $50 you spent on lunch with a dentist has brought four new patients to your practice, some simple math will show you may have earned as much as a 5,000% return on your marketing investment. (Corporate CEOs would be jealous of that return on investment; for a dentist, it is well within the realm of possibility.) On the other hand, if you know that the health care professionals who attended your open house last year never referred any new patients to your practice, you will know next year to either change the guest list or spend your money elsewhere.
If this information is so important, why don’t more dentists compile and analyze it? Chances are, your patients keep you busy around the clock. After all, you are a dentist, not an accountant. But tracking your referrals is much simpler than it sounds, and once you keep track of that information, you will know which of the dozens of marketing ideas out there are actually worth your money and time.
There are several ways to record referral information, and the method you choose will depend on how you currently keep office records.
Pen and Paper
If most of your patient information is recorded on paper, your referral tracking method could be as simple as a notebook that your office manager or receptionist keeps close at hand. The information you track and how you track it will depend on you and your office manager’s preferences. At the very least, when new patients come to your practice, be sure to note how those patients chose your practice. Was it through a referring health care provider? Did they see a Yellow Pages listing? Did they find your Web site online?
It is important to record this information for all new patients in one place. You may want to include the treatments the patients required, the money the patients paid and/or the patients’ method of payment. Keep your referral tracking system neat and organized enough so that, at the end of each month or year, you can peruse the notebook and get a good idea of how new patients chose your practice.
Excel comes with a price tag but is included in many Microsoft software packages. Google is free and uses a similar interface—all you need to do is sign up for an account, click the “documents” option and follow the spreadsheet directions. Once you create a Google spreadsheet, it can be accessed from any computer with Internet access and can be shared—via invitation only—with as many members of your practice as you wish.
A referral-tracking spreadsheet would work similarly to the notebook method described above. Decide what information you would like to track, and then begin naming your vertical columns: “Patient name,” “Date of first visit,” “How patient learned about practice,” “Treatment required,” “Revenue,” “Method of payment,” etc.
Every time a new patient comes to your practice, fill out a horizontal row with that patient’s information. When one of your new patients returns for a follow-up visit, it will be easy to update the “Treatment required” and “Revenue” fields.
Be sure to use consistent language. For example, those patients who found your practice through a Yellow Pages ad should all say “Yellow Pages ad.” If some say “Yellow Pages ad” and some say “ad in the Yellow Pages,” you will have a difficult time organizing this information later.
When it comes time to review the information, regrouping and reorganizing the fields can be done with just a few clicks, making the spreadsheet information easy to interpret. How can you see how many patients Dr. Smith has referred to you? In Excel, click the top of the “How patient learned about practice” column and under “Data,” click “Sort A–Z.” In Google Spreadsheets, move your mouse anywhere above the column and click “Sort A–Z.” Now all patients referred to you by “Dr. Smith” will be grouped together; all patients referred to you by “Dr. Jones” will be grouped together; all patients who found you through a “Yellow Pages ad” will be grouped together.
A quick glance will then show you which of your investments are paying off and which are not. Using the same sorting methods, you can rearrange your list chronologically. And the more consistent you are with your entries, the more you can do with the “sort” option. For example, by sorting the “Treatment required” column, you can see at a glance how many patients came to your practice for a certain treatment.
You can add as little or as much information to this spreadsheet as you wish:
- If you are curious to know what geographic area your patients are coming from, add a column for the patient’s city or ZIP code.
- If you want to see at a glance how many came from referring health care providers and how many from other sources, create a column that says “Health care provider referral Y/N” and enter “Y” or “N” in each patient’s row.
- Or if you want to see how your new patients are paying, create a column head that says “Insurance” and enter “Delta,” “Humana,” “None,” etc., in each patient’s row.
The possibilities with a single spreadsheet are unlimited. Just make sure that each column serves a practical, informative purpose.
Using your practice software
If your office records are already computerized or if you are shopping for software to manage your practice, be sure to track referral information through your software. How you track will depend on the office management program you have chosen—just be sure that at the end of the month or year you review the information and use it to make wise business decisions in the future.
Making sense of your referral information
All successful businesses know where their clients come from and where future clients are likely to come from. After tracking your referrals for a year, you should be able to look back and easily identify that information. As you review your notebook, spreadsheet or software-generated report, you will see patterns. Ask yourself some of the following questions:
- Do the bulk of my referrals come from just a few sources? If so, am I taking care of those sources with thank-you notes, gift cards or face-to-face lunches? How did I build those relationships in the first place? Can I build similar relationships with additional health care providers?
- When I have opportunities to refer patients, do I refer them to those who send me referrals?
- Has an individual who once sent a steady stream of patients to my office suddenly stopped? Perhaps one patient went back to that health care provider with a negative comment about my practice. A phone call to that referring individual may help straighten out the matter and resume the stream of referrals.
- What kinds of health care providers are referring patients to me? Perhaps all of your referring health care providers are from the same neighborhood or medical group. An oral surgeon might want to know if referrals are coming from general dentists or family practice physicians.
- Do I have referrals coming from individuals who are not health care providers?
- If existing patients are recommending me to their friends and colleagues, am I thanking the referring patients?
If you are trying to increase referrals to your practice, the most important question you should ask yourself while reviewing your records is this: Have my practice-development investments paid off? If you have invested time or money in public speaking, newsletter publishing or building an informative Web site, you want to know if they make a difference. Often just one new referral will more than pay for any single investment.
Tracking your referrals requires simple computer skills and common sense—not a graduate degree in business administration. And recording and interpreting this information does not require a significant time investment—just a few minutes each day from your office staff and a few minutes of your time once a month. After tracking your referrals for several months, you should see patterns that will show you how to strengthen relationships with referring dentists and other healthare providers in order to further increase your referrals. Most importantly, with hundreds of sources offering information on how to build your dental practice, you will know exactly which methods pay off in the end and which methods are not worth your time and money.
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