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Dental Office in Disarray? Managing Schedules for Better Practice Management

Dental Office in Disarray? Managing Schedules for Better Practice Management
Christine Taxin

Sometimes, the best clinicians have the worst-run offices.  They’re so focused on what happens when patients are in the chair in front of them, that they don’t notice what’s going on in the rest of the office. This blind spot is understandable. After all, you didn’t get a degree in business management, you got a degree in dentistry. If you’d been interested in office management you would have gotten a totally different degree.

 

Unfortunately, once you’re out of dental school, practice management matters. A great clinician with a poorly-run practice won’t be able to keep patients, build his business, or make ends meet. When your practice management is sloppy, patients think that you’re sloppy.  Qualified staff members get frustrated and leave for more organized practices. You need a well-run practice, or you won’t be able to stay in practice.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and your practice seems out-of-control, you should take concrete steps to become more efficient and better organized. One of the places many of my clients need to make changes is the area of scheduling.

 

Scheduling Sets the Tone

Everything in your office revolves around scheduling.  You need to ensure that patients are filling chairs, but not filling your waiting room. You need to have staff members who are busy, but not frenetic. You need to ensure that your equipment is serviced, updated, and replaced frequently enough to keep the practice running, but not so frequently that you’re wasting money.  If you want to have an orderly, profitable practice, you need to start with an orderly, practical schedule.

As the dentist, you don’t have time to be in charge of schedules. You can make global decisions about policies, but you should not be handling the nitty-gritty of staffing and patients.  You need to have a staff member who is in charge of the day-to-day scheduling and practice management. Ideally, this person should have the following traits:

  • Organized
  • Punctual
  • Able to spot larger trends
  • Good with Computers
  • Flexible

Once you have a good person in charge of schedules, you can start setting the sorts of policies that will help you improve your patient counts and maximize your staff members’ potential.

Maximizing Patients, Minimizing Downtime

One problem many struggling practices face is too much downtime in the day. They’ll have a rush of patients early in the morning, around lunch, and once school gets out. Then, they’ll have several long chunks of time where the waiting room is empty, and some of the chairs are too. Six months ago, the day was totally full, but cancellations have left everyone with wasted time.

There are two policies that can help you schedule patients more efficiently. First of all, you can consider having evening hours one or two nights a week.  If your practice is normally open 8-4, you may have a large chunk in the middle of the day where things are slow. However, you need to be fully staffed because it’s sandwiched between crunch times.  This means you have several hours a day of wasted staff time.

This problem has become especially pronounced since schools are more reluctant to let children miss class to visit the dentist.  Consider picking a few days a week to be open from 2-8 instead. You may find that you attract more patients and have fewer cancellations in the evening.

A second policy change can help you account for patients who cancel the morning of their appointment. You don’t want to penalize good patients who’ve come down with the flu or had another emergency, but empty chairs mean wasted staff time.  You can combat this trend by creating a ‘patient waitlist.’  Keep a list of people who would like an appointment as soon as one comes open.

This will include people who’ve just moved to town and don’t want to wait six months to see a dentist, people who need treatments beyond a standard cleaning, and people waiting for consultations. When an appointment comes open, have a staff member call people on the waitlist to see if any of them would like to come in. This will help you minimize down time and keep your office functioning near peak capacity.

 

Automated Staff Scheduling Solution Keep Patients Moving

At the other end of the spectrum from the practices with too much staff downtime, you have the practices where staff members can’t catch a break.  In many cases, these are poorly managed offices with a high rate of absenteeism.  You may have a large number of part-timers and have trouble balancing their scheduling needs. As a result, on certain days you’re running short-staffed. The back-log grows with every hour. Patients stew in the waiting room, swearing that they’ll never darken your door again. You’re losing money because you can’t see the patients who want to be seen.

At Links2Success, I often find that good scheduling software can solve this problem. There are a number of packages on the market that help you balance the schedules of employees with differing numbers of hours. When schedules shift, these programs even help you send emails or automated text reminders so that everyone knows when they’re supposed to work and who can act as a substitute if they can’t make a given shift.

Preventative Care isn’t Just for Teeth

Finally, it’s important to schedule your equipment maintenance, upgrades, and tests. You may have some pieces of equipment that need to be checked daily, some that need to be checked weekly, some that you check monthly and some that you only maintain once or twice a year. Juggling these schedules can be tough, but in the long run good schedules and checklists will save you time and money.  While it can be tempting to expect staff to be responsible for their own equipment and only intervene when they have problems, a well-run office has one staff member who oversees these schedules and reminds others of their duties.

This person can really increase efficiency if she embraces a combination of schedules and pre-made checklists. Research has shown that good checklists improve efficiency, profitability and safety in all kinds of environments.

Have your coordinator make up a set of checklists: a daily list, a weekly list, a monthly list, etc.  The weekly list should be designed for a certain day, and include everything on the daily list too. The monthly list should incorporate the weekly and the daily lists, and so on.  Have her create laminated copies of each list for each bay.

She should create a calendar for the coming year, showing which lists are in use on which days.  In the morning, before the practice opens, she can make sure that the right checklist for the day is in each room, and once the practice opens, she can go around and make sure everyone has completed their list.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help

Dental school didn’t teach you about scheduling, office hours, or checklists.  However, you need all of these things if you want to transform a practice in disarray into a well-run practice. If you’re lucky, you may already have someone on staff who can help you with these issues. If not, you may need to hire a new staff member to oversee practice management, or you may need to bring in a consultant to train your existing staff.  Keep in mind that the time you spend training, planning and scheduling isn’t wasted. It’s the necessary groundwork for a well-run, efficient practice that lets you devote yourself to clinical excellence.

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