Tips on dealing with emergency appointments

All practices deal with requests for same-day appointments due to pain, but not all of them have an “emergency protocol.” In today’s market, patients have become extremely busy, and “emergency appointments” have become more common. Therefore, every dental office should design and implement their own “emergency protocol” and customize it to accommodate the changing patient landscape, according to CDA Practice Advisor Marcela Truxal.

“The question becomes: How can you start this process? First, educate your front office staff on what constitutes a true patient emergency. Train staff on what type of questions to ask and the appropriate responses,” Truxal said. “The next step after identifying an emergency patient is learning how to schedule emergencies appropriately within the daily schedule. Scheduling opportunities should be discussed during the morning huddle.”

Truxal recommends dentists consider building a template for the schedule with designated openings for emergencies. While patient care is always the primary focus, understanding the best way to utilize their daily schedule can help with patient management as well as predicting daily production.  

“Since many emergency appointments are not production appointments, training your front office staff will be instrumental in ensuring your scheduled patients are not affected by the ‘add-on’ patients, or use those ‘highly desirable’ spots in the schedule,” Truxal said.

All patients would like certain times within the day; however, these should be left open for true emergencies or high production appointments.

It is good to be flexible with patients, but a dental practice needs to keep control of their schedule. For example, a patient who calls while in pain but refuses to take the appointment time offered may not be in as much pain as stated, and therefore it’s not a true emergency. Before making any determination, staff should know what questions to ask and respond accordingly.

“While not always the case, most emergency patients will accept any appointment offered within reason. It is a good idea for the dentist in the practice to come up with a specific set of questions that the front office can use to ask patients to schedule them correctly,” Truxal said. “For instance, if a patient’s crown came off, and it was done more than five years ago, that patient would likely need the best appointment available.”   

Truxal reminds dentists that they should never turn away a patient in pain because they will likely lose the patient and the patient may pass on their negative experience to their friends (potential patients). 

“Angry patients like to share their experience on social media,” Truxal said. “An angry patient can be very dangerous to a practice. Therefore, if at all possible, do your best to accommodate emergency patients. If you can, help that patient, and you will become their dentist for life."

Finally, dentists should ensure they are performing some quality control measures with their front office staff. Truxal recommends dentists randomly listen to how the front office communicates on the phone.

“Front office staff should not tell a patient in pain that there is no room in the schedule without even a discussion with the dentist or with the back office staff,” Truxal said.

Truxal also recommends making secret-shopper calls.

“You, or someone you identify, call the office and act like a new patient or an emergency patient. You can then identify areas for training opportunities and get the entire team in sync with scheduling those emergency patients,” Truxal said.

For more tips, visit cda.org/practicesupport.

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