Dan Clements examines how practitioners can better engage current and new patients and grow their practice.

by Dan Clements

Here’s my newest scary number: Last year we had over 100 new patients who booked an appointment, then had to cancel at the last minute, and never rebooked.

One hundred! Put them all in a room at the same time, and you’re looking at a lot of faces.

The challenge, of course, is that they’re not in a room at the same time—they’re spread over a whole year, and in a busy office that’s only a couple of cancelled appointments a week. Just a blip on the radar that’s there one minute, gone the next. No big deal.  Until you add them up.

Those one hundred patients are an example of a place where people fall off the map in your practice, slipping through cracks in your processes by disengaging or never quite engaging to begin with. 

In most practices, there are four cracks, each specific to a point in the timeline of the average patient:

1. The Almost New Patient. These are your “prospects”. They connect with you, perhaps through your marketing efforts or a referral, but they never quite cross the river to become clients.
2. The One-Time Patient. They show up for that first visit, but never again.
3. The Acute Care Drop Out. They suddenly disengage from active treatment.
4. The Prevention & Maintenance Drop Out. The patients who should be seeing you monthly, quarterly or annually, but vanish instead.

Unless you’re doing a good job of filling the cracks, there are probably more of these than you think. Cracks appear where our attention isn’t, and that often means they’re bigger than we realize.

Fortunately, you can help those who fall off your radar and help your practice at the same time.

Step 1: Get Better Information
Before you can effectively fill practice cracks, you may need better patient information than you currently have. It’s easy enough to reschedule that new patient, but in some clinics, a new patient booking is nothing more than a name penciled in the book. When that name doesn’t show up as scheduled, how do you contact them?

Just as important as information is good information. You might know how to reach your patients, but do you know the best way to reach them? The phone they actually answer? The best place to reach them during business hours? How about their email address? What’s their preferred method of contact? When it comes to filling cracks, the ability to reach people becomes critical.

Step 2: Find Your Missing Patients
What’s most troubling about patients who fall through the cracks isn’t that they’ve disappeared. It’s that we often don’t realize it. They haven’t just stopped showing up – we’ve stopped noticing they haven’t shown up.

To find them, you need to notice they’re missing. That takes more than memory or chance—it takes a system. Revisit each of the four types of cracks above. How can you “notice” someone who’s fallen off your radar?

Let’s use our new patient example. Every month, there are a small number of new patients who don’t make it to their first appointment. To track them, we compare the new patient form that’s used when someone first calls to book, against the actual schedule data to find anyone who’s on one list, but not the other.

The same reporting can be applied to regular patients. If you have annual visit protocols for testing or checkups, for example, then generating a simple list of everyone who had their annual visit the previous year will show you who should be booked.

This isn’t rocket science—if you don’t have fancy software to help, you can do it by simply reviewing your schedule. Regardless, you can’t depend on your memory or that of your patient. Remember: out of sight means out of mind. And out of mind means forgotten.

Step 3: Reengage Them
It’s one thing to see someone fall through a crack, but another to help them back out again. Once you know who’s missing, you need to decide how to get those folks re-engaged.

For a missing new patient that’s often as simple as a phone call, but that’s not always the case.

Life happens. People travel. Get busy. They have financial struggles or go through other life transitions that put your practice further down the priority list. In those cases, there aren’t enough phone calls in the world to bring a patient back to your office. At least not right away.

Your re-engagement plan needs to have a long-term side as well. We’ve all had patients who fall off the radar, only to reappear months or years later. Patients, as it turns out, can go missing for a long time once they vanish.

To encourage their reappearance, you need other ways to keep in touch. Patient mailings, blogs, and email newsletters are all ways of saying, “Hey. We’re here when you need us.” You can pull random files for “missing persons” and write them a personal letter. Each effort to reach out might be the one that makes a difference.

Keeping The Cracks Filled
The real secret to filling cracks is to do it consistently. If you have staff to help, make it part of their job to put the reports you need on your desk every week or month. Don’t rely on remembering to ask for it. If you use daily, weekly or monthly checklists, add these processes to those checklists so that you can see that they’re being completed.

In the end, you can’t completely fill the cracks in practice—not all of them. Life happens, and people occasionally vanish.

But what you can do is make sure that you notice when someone falls in, and be there to offer that a helping hand when they need it.

Dan Clements & Tara Gignac, ND are the owners of StoneTree Clinic in Collingwood, ON, and the authors of The Practitioner’s Journey, a practice growth guide for integrative health professionals. You can learn more about growing your practice at www.practitionersjourney.com.