Money Talks by Bete Johnson

Dentaltown Magazine

Money conversations don’t have to be uncomfortable for you, your team or your patients

by Bete Johnson

“How much do you make?” “Did you get a raise this year? How much?” “Nice car … how much did you pay for it?” “You went to Europe for three weeks. That sounds expensive. What did it cost you?” “Your new home sure is nice. How much did you pay for it?”

If a colleague asked you any of these questions, you probably wouldn’t answer, and you’d leave the conversation feeling more than a bit uncomfortable. There’s a social taboo that surrounds asking and talking about money, yet the exchange of money is what drives our economy and our lives. A recent survey found that 44% of Americans surveyed see personal finance as the most challenging topic to discuss with others, more so than subjects like politics and religion.

When the right communication happens, talking about money in the dental practice doesn’t have to be uncomfortable for you, your team or your patients. The practice deserves to be paid appropriately and promptly for the services it provides, and patients deserve to receive care for their financial investment. It truly is a win-win, and financial conversations should reflect that dynamic.

Here are a few ways to make it more comfortable and effective to discuss cost, insurance benefits, the gap between benefits and the cost of care, and payment options with patients.

Be transparent from the start

In almost every type of environment there’s an exchange of money for goods or services occurs, the cost, payment responsibilities and payment options are transparent from the start. When you walk into a grocery, department or furniture store, the cost of the products is clearly visible on the price tags. And, there’s a sign at the front of the store that lists the payment options available beyond cash. When the cost varies by situation, like at an auto repair shop, and we don’t get concrete information, it causes uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to stress and distrust, especially if the person quoting the cost seems to be uncertain and tentative. In a dental practice, the team must believe that the value of care they provide is greater than the cost, meaning the patient is getting more than they are paying for.

In dentistry, the fear of cost is one of the primary barriers to patients seeking and committing to dental care. Because the cost of care is a direct reflection of the patient’s specific oral health needs and wants, you can’t provide the treatment fee prior to the examination and treatment planning. But, you can recognize patients’ concerns and be upfront and transparent with payment options on your website and on the phone.

“Good morning. I think I have something wrong with my tooth. A friend said I probably need a cap or a filling. How much does that cost?”

“Thank you for calling. We’re here to help. It sounds like you are concerned with cost. Many patients are concerned with cost. Because the cost of fixing your tooth depends on what is wrong with it, I can’t provide you with a specific cost before you see the doctor. But I can tell you the cost for the examination is $XXX. After the examination, we will share with you the cost of care and we will work hard to maximize any insurance benefits you may have. We do have several payment options available, including special financing, which many of our patients prefer. Together, we’ll find something that works for your dental care needs and family budget. How does that sound to you?”

Ask permission and let patients participate

Because you and your team know that talking about money can be uncomfortable and because the patient’s mouth and money are very personal topics, it’s important to ask permission before the financial conversation and ask again at the end (people tend to remember what they hear last, not what they hear first). When you ask permission, you can also set the patient’s expectations of what that discussion is going to focus on. It can be as simple as saying, “Mrs. Jones, the doctor has shared the care that you need and I’m here to answer any questions or talk about any concerns you have. Then, we will walk through the specifics of treatment, the timing and how your benefits may contribute to the cost of care and your payment options. Does that work for you?”

Invite that patient to participate in the conversation. Ask questions, confirm understanding and seek out information that will help you better structure payment options around the patient’s needs. Practicing financial conversations together can make the team more comfortable during the discussion. When your team is more comfortable, your patients may be as well. And they may be more likely to take the next step and schedule care.

These four steps can help you have great financial conversations:

1. Confirm understanding and the patient’s desire for care.

“Mrs. Jones, I want to confirm that you understand the doctor’s treatment recommendations and that you want to invest in your health.”

2. Talk about the patient’s investment in time.

“First, let’s talk about what care means in terms of your time. There are two options. We can spread your time investment over the course of two appointments. Or, if you prefer, we can do the treatment in one longer appointment. Which of these options would you prefer?”

3. Discuss dollars and benefits.

“The cost of care is $3,200. I understand your employer has provided you with dental benefits. That’s terrific. We will work hard to optimize your annual benefits and anticipate, based on working with your insurance company and other patients, that your employer has arranged for them to contribute $1,000 to the cost of your oral health.”

 4. Give them the total and all their options.

As much as people don't like talking about money, they do like being in control and having choices. When you let patients know the cost of care, give them all their options so they can choose what's best for them. When you offer options one at a time based on the practice's preference, patients may feel there are additional, more preferable options that you didn't offer.

“Mrs. Jones, as mentioned, the total cost of care is $3,200. When you apply your benefit contribution of $1,000 that leaves a remaining balance of $2,200, which is your investment in your health. Let’s work together to find a payment option that works best for you. As I mentioned earlier, we have several you can choose from. We accept cash and provide a cash courtesy. We also accept credit cards. And if being able to make payments over time is something you’d prefer, we have a special financing option through the CareCredit credit card. Mrs. Jones, based on how you would like to manage your finances, which of those options would be best for you?” 

Author Bio
Author Bete Johnson, a 25-year sales, marketing and practice management veteran, is senior vice president and general manager of dentistry for CareCredit. She has been a core part of the team for almost 18 years and, among numerous awards, received recognition as one of the Top 25 Women in Dentistry and the Linda Miles Spirit Award. Through her engagement with dental professionals including consultants, associations, practices and dental suppliers, Johnson provides the opportunity to network and create new relationships that benefit the dental profession.
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