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Practice Management for the Dental Industry Back to Course Index

Practice Management for the Dental Industry


Running a successful dental practice presents new challenges every day. Follow a road map of ethically-based, voluntary practice management guidelines to help your practice succeed. This course will explore the primary issues that can come when running a dental practice.  The information offered is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as legal or other professional advice.  Always consult a qualified professional for advice specific to your circumstances.

The American Dental Association offers ethically-based, voluntary practice management guidelines to help a practice succeed. 

Their guidelines are rooted in well-established practices designed to make the patient’s well-being the preeminent concern when providing patient care. It can be helpful when faced with making a challenging decision to consult the guidelines, the state’s laws and regulations and your board’s Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct to ensure the course of action you decide upon is legally and ethically sound.



The front desk staff, hygienists, billing staff, and you all make up the patient’s perception of your practice. The ability to communicate with patients is pivotal. Managing the patient’s perception is critical to providing patients with ethical, personalized, high-quality care that maintains, or improves, their oral health and their overall health and well-being. It’s also an important factor in developing and fostering a trusting relationship based on mutual respect that can last for decades.

The best way to understand the importance of your patients’ experience with your practice is to put yourself in their shoes. Consider these questions, not as a dentist, but as a patient:

  • What would you want and expect from your dentist?
  • What would you want and expect from the members of the dental team? 
  • What makes a dental visit a positive experience, even if the treatment or care provided involves discomfort?
  • What makes you willing to return to the same practice?

The answers to those questions can make a huge difference in your ability to develop positive relationships with your patients. When they are considered from both a personal and a business perspective, those answers can affect your no show, cancellation and case acceptance rates, patient referrals, and treatment plans.

Dental care has been driven by preventive and restorative treatment, and the foundation of every clinical procedure you recommend and perform is built on the relationship you’ve established with each patient. As the team of dental professionals supporting you in providing care, your patients are part of your dental family. From the first phone call to the completion of the treatment plan, your ability to successfully communicate with patients will determine how effectively you meet their expectations. Good communication is the cornerstone of any successful practice.

Communication regarding making appointments, how long a visit will take, what will happen and what is covered by their insurance are all important areas to cover before treatment begins.  Every patient deserves the best care you can offer. While it might be tempting to schedule as many patients as possible, the goal of effective time management is to achieve a workable balance between quality and quantity. While a full schedule may be appealing, over-scheduling could make you feel pressure to rush through appointments. The quantity of dentistry can never outweigh quality.

The patient’s first visit to your practice should be a positive initial experience. Many practices offer a patient a special welcome packet that includes the basics (toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, etc.) as well as any pamphlets, brochures after their first visit.

The office should be clean and inviting.  If time allows, take patients on a brief tour so they can see the size of the practice and feel comfortable.  It is important for patients to meet the staff and dentist that will be working with them.

Once the patient is comfortable in the chair, have a team member describe what will be done during the appointment and how those activities help you take care of them. Some dental practices perform medical screenings (blood pressure, pulse, temperature).

Most practices have policies that explain the methods of payment accepted. These can include flexible payment options from external, third party lenders, prepayment and courtesy payment arrangements, and other internal financial arrangements.  Financial matters should be agreed upon before work is done.

Despite the best of intentions, patients sometimes have legitimate reasons to cancel appointments. A small percentage of patients might be more prone to cancel frequently-or just not show up. Since the best offense is a good defense, it’s important to motivate patients to keep their appointments by stressing how regular oral health care can lead to good systemic health.  If your practice has a cancellation policy it should be explained during the first visit.

Informed consent is the basis for every treatment you propose to and perform on patients. Dentists must obtain informed consent from each patient or from the patient’s legal guardian or decision-maker. State laws impact whether consent can be verbal or written.

The success of any dental practice is directly related to patients’ acceptance of the dentists’ treatment recommendations. A “choreographed” case presentation that blends spoken words with non-verbal cues and visual aids can increase patients’ acceptance of your recommendations. In some cases, it can be helpful to support your case presentation with photographic evidence.

The dentist must be available for patients of record anytime an emergency occurs, no matter when that might be. It’s up to you to assess whether the situation is a true emergency or something that can easily wait until the next morning or when the practice reopens on the next business day. Keep in mind that patients in pain need to be reassured and offered relief from their symptoms.  The staff and dentist should be trained in handling medical emergencies as a first responder.

You are partners with the patient in their post-treatment care. It’s important for you to make sure that the patient understands their role and responsibilities following each appointment.  It may be necessary to provide patients with written post-procedure instructions following certain treatments.

Patient records are a vital part of a practice. Among other things, they contain information about the patient’s treatment plan and care that has been delivered. Dental records are especially important when submitting dental benefit claims or responding to lawsuits. While the dental record could be viewed as a form of insurance for your practice, make sure you include only those facts necessary.

Patient satisfaction comes down to creating a positive experience. Understanding your patient base can help you to grow it. Excellent customer service is also key to patient satisfaction and loyalty. 

And how do you know if your patients are happy? Many dental practices find it helpful to survey patients about their experience. Another way to assess patient satisfaction is to monitor what your patients saying about you on sites like Yelp in order to manage your online reputation.

What do you do if your patients are unhappy? How can you tell, and what do you do about it? How you handle patient dissatisfaction can strengthen a relationship or indicate that it’s time to part ways. Here are some tips for dealing with dissatisfaction:

  • Patient complaints typically result from a breakdown in communication. Be open and willing to discuss the patient’s complaints or concerns. 
  • Patients with complaints usually want the opportunity to be heard, to have their complaint acknowledge, or to get an explanation for why something happened. Give patients enough time to fully explain their concern, so that they feel as though they’re being dealt with honestly and attentively.
  • Research shows that dentists with the fewest complaints spend more time with each patient at each visit. Get to know your patients well, listen actively, and maintain a warm and friendly atmosphere.

While patients generally have high regard for health care practitioners, especially dentists, all dentists have dissatisfied patients at some point in their careers. How you handle this type of situation can strengthen a relationship or indicate that it’s time to part ways.  Listen to patients without attempting to solve or dismiss the issue before hearing the patient out.  Discuss solutions to the patient’s concern.  Let them be a part of the treatment plan solution.

It’s up to you to determine if and when a patient should be given a refund for the service provided. Some dentists follow the philosophy that the patient is always right. Others might honor a request for a refund because it’s easier than trying to convince the patient that the care provided was appropriate and that the patient was aware of the potential risks.

As the dentist, you are the leader of the dental team. A critical component to being a good leader is being able to effectively communicate with your team. Listen, provide regular feedback, and set clear expectations.   A key aspect to effectively leading your team is defining roles and responsibilities. Who does what, when and where? This will help you improve efficiency, reduce redundancy and waste, and keep everyone feeling confident and focused. 

A good dental practice will operate a hierarchical system with patients’ interests at the top.