In our latest article on the Dentistry Census, the profession explains how the role of a treatment coordinator is key to getting ‘time poor’ teams back on track in treating patients.
This is according to three keen advocates of the role who spoke to Dentistry this week, as Dentistry Census statistics reveal only one quarter of practices (25%) in the UK currently include the role within their team.
Figures show 27% of the profession consider a treatment coordinator either ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to the success of any dental practice but many owners remain reluctant to invest – even though dental teams are ‘overworked and stretched’.
These results, taken from FMC’s Dentistry Census – the biggest ever survey of dental professionals in the UK – are the latest figures to be analysed.
A role that was only developed within the last two decades, early advocates have reported greater uptake of treatments and improved patient experience as a result. Reports suggest that up to 90% of non-clinical work can be taken up by a TCO.
So, why have many dentists been slow to implement it into their practices?
Below, we hear from Laura Horton, of Horton Consulting, who offers management advice to dental practices and runs TCO training courses; cosmetic dentist Martina Hodgson, a leading Invisalign provider who recently opened The Dental Architect, in Leeds; and dentist Priya Gaind, who offers dental and facial aesthetic treatments to patients at Field End Dental Clinic in Pinner, Middlesex, and is head of clinical at DD.
In a profession beset by time constraints and stretched to meet patient demand, they speak in unison of the benefits the role brings in building patient rapport, maintaining long-term loyalty and improving customer service.
Laura thinks the role of treatment coordinator (TCO) is one that’s hugely misunderstood. This is an issue that brings litigation risk for dentists as a result, she says.
She expressed alarm at the number of practices with job vacancy adverts that cite ‘sales experience’ in its list of criteria for applicants, and stressed that a TCO is all about informed patient education rather than upselling treatments.
Laura explained: ‘A popular misconception of the treatment coordinator role is that it is a sales role. It’s not – it is an education and consent role. Dentists have had it drummed into them about communication and record keeping from the start of their training and they have concerns TCOs will put them at risk of litigation.
‘This can be the case if we appoint salespeople to the role where hitting targets and getting people to buy into certain procedures is the focus. It should be about empowering patients to make informed decisions.
‘TCOs should work hand in hand with the dentist to support all the communication around all the options so the patient may make an informed decision about the option that is best for them, rather than working towards a bigger commission, which creates a lack of trust.’
Laure believes the secret lies in having ‘systems and processes’ to support TCOs. This is so that owners can trust them to develop a safe and productive working relationship.
‘Now that practices are so busy, it is the high-value patients that dentists are looking to attract. Having spent money on marketing to get people to make an enquiry, practices then need to convert as many of these potential patients as possible. A TCO removes the non-clinical areas of dentistry for the dentist, freeing them up to focus on the delivery of treatments.’
‘More important than ever’
With many dentists challenged by heightened patient demand, Laura believes a TCO is key to keeping up business momentum.
She said: ‘Due to the pandemic, many dentists are booked up far ahead. Many patients are not going to want to wait six to 12 weeks for a new patient examination appointment. A TCO should always be able to see the patient in a matter of days.
‘The missing piece is the momentum. It is important to keep this up after the patient enquiry so that the lead is converted.
‘Once the patient is in the clinic, or they have a fabulous virtual experience, they are then happy to wait to see the dentist because they understand the clinic is the right clinic for them.
‘Dentists’ time is more important than ever. Many no longer have time to see patients who are not 100% committed to going ahead with treatment. The TCO can provide a fabulous experience for the patient. They can also educate them about all the potential options and fees.’
She added: ‘Dentists want to see the right patients and have them highly educated before they see them.
‘Patients who are treatment coordinated from start until finish become long-term patients. They are are less likely to have their treatment and just disappear. Once you have implemented the role of TCO in your clinic, you want it to be a long-term role.’
Martina suggests there are a number of factors that concern dentists when it comes to implementing a TCO into their practice.
She explained: ‘Firstly the financial investment of recruiting a full-time member of staff can be off-putting, although really it is one of the best investments you can make for your practice – and a good TCO will give you massive return on investment.
‘Secondly, they are unclear on exactly what a TCO should be doing. What is in their job description and how can they go about the training?
‘And finally, a TCO needs somewhere to live. A lack of space within the practice can be a challenge as they need a quiet, private space to run their consultations. But many TCOs can now work remotely, or make use of unused surgery time.’
But Martina believes anyone appointed as a TCOs should have the best communication skills if they are to be a boon to practices.
‘One of the reasons dental nurses make great TCOs is that they already have a good understanding of dento-legal requirements, record keeping and confidentiality. However this can obviously be taught and there are some great TCO courses out there. They are the frontline in educating, liaising with and building rapport with our patients. The consent process starts with them and they are there to provide a world-class customer service from start to finish.
‘They constantly liaise with patients and dentists to ensure everything runs smoothly and no one drops the baton. We see how a TCO can change patients’ lives. But also understand how successful and profitable it makes our practices.’
Never an add-on
She echoes Laura Horton’s belief that a TCO is not a sales role.
‘Any TCO worth their salt would be horrified to think their job was a pushy sales role. They pride themselves on building relationships and helping people. If you do that, the numbers will follow.’
She also maintains it should never be an add-on to the responsibilities of another member of the team.
Martina said: ‘Some practice owners can make the mistake of having a receptionist or dental nurse that is also part-time TCO. There’s a lot to the role and it takes time and focus. I don’t think someone can carry out the role effectively if they are not all-in.’
Additionally, Martina believes investment in digital technology is fundamental.
‘By using digital scanners, the patient can see their own mouth the way we see it for the first time. It builds instant trust and is a great educational tool. The outcome simulator on our iTeros helps the patient visualise what their teeth could look like after treatment. We also use AI software in SmileMate to produce our patients’ free reports and triage all prospective patients. Trackers and Microsoft Teams are vital too to monitor our progress and communicate and share information.’
Figures from the Dentistry Census reveal that 23% of practices are yet to invest in an intraoral scanner. This is despite many others embracing a complete digital delivery of dentistry.
Priya suggests the lack of TCO take-up is due to the current climate of financial constraints and increasing costs. She said many practice owners are wary, especially as they believe they have no guarantees for return on their investment.
‘Like any healthcare profession, dental teams are currently overworked and stretched. There has been a recent mass exodus of dentists and their staff from the profession. This leaves the rest with less time for admin outside of clinical dentistry.
‘The TCO is still a fairly new role and an unknown to many dental practices. After speaking to a few practices, many believe it is either unaffordable or there may be challenges ahead with a potential recession. A few practices believe the work can still be done to a degree by their own staff.’
But with a backlog of patients to treat and many dentists time-poor, she too believes having a TCO can help in the first instance by having initial consultations with treatment-curious patients and turning them into leads.
Training is essential
They can also provide a much-needed link to patients throughout their treatment journey, encouraging long-term commitment.
‘A TCO is a great point of contact for patients,’ Priya said. ‘The TCOs I have worked with in the past are friendly faces. They help people to feel more comfortable in the dental setting, especially those with fear.
‘Using modern-day technology, such as Zoom or photo-sharing apps, an initial consultation can be carried out. Patients are signposted to the appropriate clinician.
‘Also, patients are given a rough idea of cost. This filters out the patients shopping for treatment from those genuinely interested in proceeding.
‘A TCO acts as their point of care after an initial consultation. They answer any questions, carry out any administrative tasks and book any necessary appointments. This saves the dentist, the receptionist, and the practice manager a great deal of time. It has a higher conversion rate of leads to treatment.’
But she maintains that proper TCO training is essential if dentists are to avoid litigation.
Priya added: ‘Communication has always been the most common reason for complaints and, with a TCO being so heavily involved in patient communication, it is essential they are prepared and supported.’
Dentistry Census acknowledgements
From August to September 2021, we carried out the first ever Dentistry Census. This is the most comprehensive survey the UK dental profession has seen.
Dentistry, in collaboration with DD, undertook the extensive survey to explore the current state of the profession and the future implications for dentistry.
We would like to thank all the dental professionals who took part in the Dentistry Census at such a challenging time. We would also like to thank DD for their support.
The Dentistry Census is based on a survey of 816 dental professionals from across the four nations. It was undertaken from August – September 2021, in collaboration with DD using Surveymonkey to collect the data.