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The Bell Curve

Returning Existing Patients



As the COVID-19 disease is brought under some control, dentist-owned small practices and DSOs are fervently working to bring back existing patients.


The classic adoption curve model is suitable for the adoption of technology and applicable to other industries and situations like the one we're in now. It exists like the 80/20 rule, which is a fundamental model that has proven valid. I suggest we apply the adoption curve model as we explore how to recover existing patients in the post-COVID-19 environment.


Remember, the adoption curve, like any model, is a mental construct to describe functions and processes. It assists with the discovery of information, helps identify opportunities and establishes a basis for determining product and service costs. All models have their limitations. However, they do assist in understanding the problems or circumstances and lead to better solutions.  


Models are not the bedrock truth. They are simply a structure you use to reflect and examine some aspect of business or life. 




On the front end of the adoption curve are the Initiators and Early Adopters. Reports coming in over the last weeks, from practices that opened, show a return rate of 50 percent to nearly 85 percent compared to the previous year’s patient visits. This is exceptional when compared to other healthcare office-based businesses. 


In the adoption curve, some of the returning patients were in the group of "Initiators." These patients experienced thoughts of, "I have to see the dentist now." There was perceived urgency by this group, resulting in some pent-up demand. The Initiator patients believed their need for dental work exceeded their concerns about safety. 


Moreover, most practices, solo to mega-DSOs, had gone "all-out" with safety equipment and protocols. They shared an overabundance of patient communications to demonstrate their high degree of safety now in existence in the practice. 


The Initiator group may have had the least concerns about safety, but the safety messages they received from a given practice spoke to them. It also spoke loudly to the Early Majority group. The first group to return “primed the pump” to restore this second group of patients into the practice.


The transition that included the Early Majority was a bit more complicated, but they were OK with returning, after a little nudge. They needed more convincing, but the safety work and patient broadcasts via e-mail, Facebook, Instagram and personal calls did the job.  


A fair amount of Early Majority patients rescheduled their appointments, even with mitigating circumstances such as unemployment, children at home, job insecurities, transportation, immune deficiencies, etc. And the number of appointments scheduled and kept by the Initiators and Early Majority delivered reasonable revenue numbers. 


Those in the Early Majority group that didn’t schedule at the point of contact indicated they would, or did, reschedule for late summer or early fall.


The number of patients and appointments dentists achieved in the first four or five weeks post-COVID, however, might turn out to be somewhat of a false positive. Why? Because the next group the practices will encounter is the Late Majority – the largest segment of the practice’s patients. 


The Late Majority consists of patients that have a higher resistance to returning to the practice. 


My best guess estimate is Initiators and Early Majority represent 50% of your patients: the other 40% are Late Majority. Forget the Laggards; they're most likely not coming back unless they have an emergency.  


To continue the return to pre-virus revenues, practices need a sizeable number of the Late Majority patients to return. The question now is, “how can we lower the resistance of this group’s members and move them to return?” 


The answer is to build greater trust with this group, which is best achieved both personally and digitally.




Patients are uncertain about the outcome of the dentist's actions. They can only develop and evaluate their expectations. Part of trust creation is determined by the degree to which those expectations are then met.  


It's time to ask your Late Majority patients the following questions: 


·      What expectations need to be met for you to come back to the dental office? 


·      What concerns do you have about coming back to the dental office? 


·      What fears, if any, do you have about coming back? 


Take note of their responses. 


For a patient to answer these questions truthfully, questions that involve trust and fear, the person calling from your office must be highly skilled in communication and empathetic listening.

Enhancing trust in the relationship comes through caring. The staff making the calls must authentically care about the patient - not their teeth, not the schedule, not about revenue targets, but genuinely about the patient as a human being. The patient must feel cared for. 

Once you have addressed the concerns, expectations and fears of the Late Majority, then a request to return can be made more easily. And more than likely, it will be accepted. 

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