Reprinted with permission from the AzDA Journal Inscriptions, volume 11, number 2, August 1997

Dental patients across the country are becoming more service savvy. They want to be sure their investment in healthcare provides them with the benefits of good oral health: looking good, feeling good, having strong teeth and gums, and enjoying their natural teeth for a lifetime.

To meet these demands, practitioners continue to educate themselves on the new techniques which are constantly becoming available in modern dentistry, and which enable them to deliver the highest quality of care to their patients. Often overlooked, however, is the need to keep up with the changing marketplace regarding payment.

Managed care plans are available but should be analyzed thoroughly regarding the financial impact and practice characteristics they represent. Yet, according to the Health Care Finance Administration, dental consumers continue to pay for approximately one half of all dental treatment out of their own pockets.

Three simple ground rules will help your practice cope with these changing times. Follow these rules diligently; make them the foundation upon which you build your payment systems. In this way, you can experience payment success in your practice.

Ground Rule #1: "We will inform before we perform. " Patients should be informed of all fees, and specific arrangements should be made for payment before any treatment begins.
Ground Rule #2: "Our dental office will not loan money." When patients are allowed to pay for their care over an extended period of time, you are actually loaning them money!
Ground Rule #3: "We will provide flexible-but firm-payment options. " It is a reality that, while people generally want the best possible care, they often need some form of financing. The best way to solve this problem, without breaking Ground Rule #2, is to provide a variety of payment options for your patients.

What kinds of firm yet flexible payment methods are available? Here are some suggestions. Offer a cash discount (or as I would prefer to say, a cash courtesy) for treatment paid for in advance. This is a great way for patients to save money, and a way for the practice to secure payment. An added benefit to the practice is patients tend to keep appointments for which they have already paid!

Make better use of major credit cards as a payment option. One approach which could be used more is the process of spreading payments out over time using signature on file for credit cards. There are forms available which provide structure to this system. In all cases, it is important to make sure your patients know you accept payment by credit card. Display signs at the front desk, include a notice on your billing statement that you accept payment by credit card, and tell each and every patient, "We have made arrangements to accept payment by credit card, would you like to use VISA or MasterCard?"

Use a dedicated healthcare credit card for patients in need of financing. Here, you receive payment up front, and the patient can make low monthly payments. A definite win-win for the patient and the practice.

But what if patients are not able to pay for services using the previously mentioned payment options? Most dental offices offer a "payment plan" that usually results in the patient paying whatever they want, whenever they want. There is, however, a fourth payment option that is more firm, yet still provides flexibility for patients. It is called Pre-Authorized Checking. Here, the financial coordinator and patient arrange to deduct payments directly from the patient's checking account. This payment option is a great way to make structured financing available to patients who don't qualify for the ideal payment methods mentioned above.

Although the principle objective is to be paid without loaning money, be aware of indications from the patient that they may need financing. At that point, use a simple, straightforward, one page written financial policy which explains the various payment methods you have elected to accept in the practice. With this tool, move through the various payment methods, making sure you establish well structured financial arrangements. In other words, don't leave the payment schedule up to the patient.

Use these recommendations to build payment systems which work for your patients. In the final analysis, patients deserve the very best care you can deliver, and you deserve to be paid!