Sandy Odle

Sandy Odle


4 Front desk protocols for cancellations

Last minute cancellations are the bane of every dentist’s existence, and it isn’t always easy to figure out the “why”. Are your patients simply forgetful? Or is there a genuine lack of communication making things more difficult in the days leading up to their appointment? Oftentimes, it’s when we go looking for answers that we come across all the vital issues necessary for us to address this problem. So what should you do if a patient cancels their appointment? Here are four front desk protocols and operating standards that will keep your dental chairs occupied.

1. Get rid of no-show syndrome

Your primary goal in reducing cancellations is to remind your patients of treatment importance. Prevention is the best medicine after all, which is why even regular hygiene appointments should be seen as essential to your patient’s health. You have to be willing to educate and inform patients before, during, and after they visit your practice. Some first steps you can take include:

  • Providing your office with simple, educational pamphlets detailing the importance of regular cleanings
  • Emailing monthly newsletters that answer patient questions and offer services
  • Asking your front desk as well as hygiene staff to inquire about any new or worsening problems that can be added to patient notes

While some of these steps might seem like no-brainers, it’s essential that you’re consistently managing them for both new and recurring patients. If you let the day-to-day tasks accumulate and lose your informative marketing edge, your patients will lose interest in your services and cancel more frequently.

2. Show up

Of course, we’re not talking about just the patient, we’re talking about you! “Showing up” to the conversation of your patient’s dental health is just as important as treating them. Find time as a dentist to speak with your patients directly about their dental health. While we can’t do this every time, ask yourself, “When was the last time I talked to this patient?” We all know that the best healthcare providers are personable, friendly, and interested in what we have to say. It’s customer service and personal at its finest. Yet, while we hold ourselves accountable for this relationship, we should also hold our patients accountable for their appointments. Here are a few easy ways to do this:

  • Have patients confirm an appointment through SMS 24 to 48 hours before their scheduled date
  • Double check that patients know exactly what they’re coming in for and when
  • Tell patients they don’t need to “cancel”, they need to “change” or “reschedule”

If your patients haven’t responded to emails or text messages, call them directly and ask to confirm over the phone. Sometimes we need a real voice to remind us of our obligations, or maybe they were just too busy to read the reminder messages. You have everything to lose if you don’t make the effort to keep patients transparent about their schedule. You can be cordial without being demanding, and holding both parties accountable for their agreement is the best way to do it.

3. Plan for the worst

Obviously, we can’t prevent all cancellations, but we can always manage them. A simple and quick operating procedure you can implement is building out a list of reliable patients of record. You know the ones; they’re always in your office 15 minutes early to take care of business and have significantly lower long term balances than other patients. Schedule these superstar patients during your prime hours of operation, not the ones you know to be a little more “fluid” in their appointment keeping. This can be the single most important procedure you implement, as it gives favor to those who are faithful to their schedule and allows for making up lost time for those who aren’t.

If a patient calls you last minute, remind them that they need to “reschedule” not cancel. Ask them for a preferred date and time, taking into account their history with your office. Sometimes cancellations are truly necessary, even last minute ones, and we should always be looking for ways to make things easier and more comfortable for patients who may not be able to fully explain the situation to us right away.

4. Care for yourself and others

A lot of the time, dentistry and treatment can seem very transactional for your patients. If you’re just another doctor asking them for money all the time, where is the benefit for them? You might think that it’s cleaner, happier, and healthier teeth, but long term, you need to ensure that your patients feel cared for medically and emotionally. Some patients cancel because they think they’re unable to afford treatment. Make sure that your front office staff has a clear view of the estimated patient portion before they come in, so that there are no surprises. Additionally, offer payment plans for bigger procedures that may require billing over a few months. Have the integrity to both trust and clarify these costs to the patient, and you will have a more willing and honest payor.

In the end, preventing cancellations is about taking care of yourself and your business so that you’re able to take care of others. When all else fails, implement a no-show cancellation fee that scales based on the total expected patient portion. This can be anywhere from $25 to $200. Include this stipulation in your fee schedule. When speaking directly to patients, inform them that this fee allows you to continue to provide the best care and service, while also respecting your staff’s time. While it’s not foolproof, it can help to provide patients with more accountability for their scheduled treatment days. By utilizing these protocols as needed, you can manage inevitable cancellations and focus on the patients in your office right now.


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