• September 14, 2016

Patient surveys, Part 1

Patient surveys can spark feelings of apprehension, whether or not your practice conducts them.

If you choose not to survey your patients, there are no doubt worries you’re missing something. If you do collect survey information, you wonder or worry over what to do with the results.

Management and practice consultants are unified on this front: dentists should absolutely have patient surveys. Your expectations, your survey questions and the actions you take in response to the results are imperative to growing your patient base, to retention and to treatment acceptance. 

A 2013 report by The Medical Group Management Association found that nearly 80 percent of what it called “better-performing” practices use patient satisfaction surveys. “These high performers were more likely to survey their patients, and to do so more frequently compared to other practices,” the report found.

One snag, according to Elizabeth Woodcock, an operations consultant at MGMA, is that practices conduct surveys without “a clear idea of why they’re collecting feedback and how they plan to use the responses they collect.”

“It’s important to define what you’re going to do with the information,” Ms. Woodcock said. “Knowing how you’ll use the data also helps you determine what questions you’re going to ask.”

There are other challenges as well.

Amy LaVange, a consultant and author for cloud-based Solutionreach, agrees that most dentists are intimidated at the prospect of creating and distributing a survey and don’t understand how to leverage the results they get.

A lack of desire or a “perceived lack of resources” to analyze survey results and make changes in response also hold back dentists, she said. 

“But not only are patient surveys worth your time,” Ms. LaVange said, “they don’t have to be scary. Remember, the most basic survey is still better than no survey.”

Constructing a survey is fairly straight-forward and common-sense, though there are a few guidelines.

Some questions to “always” include: 

  • Would you recommend this practice to your family or friends?
  • What could we have done better?
  • What else would you like to tell us about?

Some other advice, assembled by Jamie Smith, a contributor to The Profitable Practice:

  • Distribute surveys electronically AND on paper.
  • Keep it short and simple, no more than 10 questions with only three open-ended questions.
  • Target a 10 percent to 20 percent response rate.
  • Prioritize improvements that will improve the patient experience.
  • Communicate progress and changes to patients.
Ms. Smith also warns not to ask for feedback in an area that the practice is unable or unwilling to change.

Consultants advise conducting surveys only two or three times a year, to avoid survey fatigue, and to acknowledge results with a “You talked, we listened” sign in the waiting area, on the website or on the practice phone message to let patients know their concerns were heard and changes are planned.

Patient surveys might seem a daunting task at first, but with a little thought and planning – and a firm handle on your expectations – the project can yield lasting results.

Next month: What are some useful questions for a patient survey that could yield meaningful discussions and changes in your practice? A national survey by a dental group identified several issues – some contemporary, some old-school – that are top concerns to patients and prospective patients. More on what’s important to patients next month.

The views expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of the Chicago Dental Society. CDS presents Front Desk, a column addressing problems dentists and staff members experience in the office. Front Desk is prepared by Stephanie Sisk, a freelance journalist. Suggestions? Email suggestions for topics to be covered to the Chicago Dental Society.