I’m sure every dental office has a set system in place for releasing patients. I currently manage a small office, and am the only person at our front desk. Even though we’re small, we still have our busy days with full schedules and double Hygiene going. My system is pretty simple though. I ask everyone to walk their patient up, tell me what they did and what the patient needs next. If there’s already a patient at my desk, or if I’m on the phone with one, I ask that they tell their patient to take a seat back out in the reception area, and I’ll be right with them. This way we’re respecting their privacy, and things flow well. Although it’s a simple system, things don’t always go as planned. I’m not sure what, but strange things happen between the operatory and the front desk. Things that throw the best laid plans out of whack. And out of this wackiness, I’ve been able to pinpoint my two least favorite patient release scenarios.
When the patient wanders up all alone.
They appear rather suddenly, and of course they’re all by themselves. Then it’s, “Hi. I’m all done.” Fabulous! Who are you and what are you done with?
If you’re a Doctor, Assistant or Hygienist, you help all of the patients on your schedule. But up at the desk, we help all of the patients on all of the schedules. Plus, all of the patients who call in. That’s a lot of names, places, people and treatment to keep track of. I do my best but my super powers don’t always allow me to connect a patient’s face with who they saw and what they came in for. Plus, things change all the time. Even if I know the patient’s name, and there’s treatment attached to their appointment, I have no idea what actually happened back there unless someone tells me.
This is just as frustrating for my patient as it is for me. Even though they’ve wandered up alone, they assume I have all of the information I need to help them. When I have to leave the desk to go find someone to give me that information, or wait for someone to answer a page, the office looks very disorganized. I know it lowers their opinion of us because, I’m the one that hears their sighs and sees their eye rolls. Plus, we’re wasting their time. They really hate that.
When I’m brought a patient, while I’m with a patient.
And FYI, if I’m on the phone with a patient, I’m with a patient.
This one really blows my mind. I work with a great bunch of people. They’re all very smart and have many years of experience between them. So it puzzles me that they don’t understand that, like them, I can only help one patient at a time.
I’ve tried to explain it. I’ve even tried to scare them with stories of the HIPAA police. They know what they’re supposed to do. But at least once a day someone’s brain shuts down and they ‘forget’. They’ll walk right behind the desk, stand next to me, and allow their patient to stand right next to the one who’s already there. If I’m on the phone, same thing. They’ll just stand there with their patient and listen to my conversation. Once I realize that their brain has shut down, and that they’ve forgotten all about privacy laws, and how each of our patients deserves our undivided attention, I’ll interrupt the patient I’m helping and ask the new arrival to have a seat in the reception area.
Sometimes I think it might help if I could show them what they’re doing. Like instead of having their patient wait in the reception area after they check-in, I’ll bring them directly back to the operatory. “They’ll be right with you Mrs. Jones! You just stand right there in the doorway, and stare at them until they finish up with their patient.” Oh but wait, wouldn’t it be crazy to bring them a patient when they’re already with a patient? Yes. Yes it would.
I know I sound like I’m picking on the clinic, but really I’m not. I’ve been there myself. When I was a Dental Assistant, my Office Manager once told me that her least favorite patient release scenario, was when I released a patient to her. WOW was I offended. And of course, I became defensive immediately. But once I got over myself, I listened to what she was trying to tell me.
She said that I was spending too much time talking with my patients at the desk. I was giving her the information she needed, but it was taking way too long. At first I thought she was being really petty. But then she pointed out that she doesn’t work on a schedule like I do. Her next patient could walk up or call at any minute, and she needed to be ready. So the chit-chat that I though was me just being nice, was actually stressing her out. Once we talked it out, I really did see her point. And I felt really bad that I’d been frustrating her without knowing it.
After that, I’d give her the info she needed, then I’d say good-bye and leave her to it. I was still friendly of course. But I made sure I had my chatter wrapped up by the time I reached the desk. She really appreciated that I was able to help her out.
And I really think that’s as simple as this gets. You don’t get a smooth patient release by having the best system in place. Systems are easy. The hard part is getting people to care about what they’re doing. That’s what matters the most, and that’s the thing we can’t teach. We can’t train people on how to be kind and empathetic. We can’t teach them to care about their coworkers and their patients.
That’s not to say we should just toss our systems out the window. Of course we should have great systems and protocols, and we should do our very best to enforce them. And on those occasions when the system breaks down a bit, do what I do. Keep chocolate in your desk to reward yourself for not throwing a stapler at your coworker’s heads.