Handling After Hours Visits
As a sole provider, the responsibility falls on you when patients are experiencing a toothache or dental emergency. Timely treatment can impact whether or not the tooth is saved, or what type of restoration is needed down the road – and if your patient comes back in the future.
Make a Plan, and Stick With it
In order for patients to let you know that they have an emergency, they’ve got to be able to get a hold of you. It’s important to either have your office line provide an extension that can be dialed to forward a call to you - or to provide a separate number on your answering machine where the dentist or a staff member can be reached. If you want patients to be able to get in touch with you, consider having a 2nd cell phone that is passed between staff members or you keep on your nightstand.
The majority of the time, patients can be talked through their emergency and wait to be seen until the next business day (or sent to an emergency room, depending on the situation.) Patients who need to be seen in the office will generally be fewer and further between.
If a staff member is answering the phone line overnight or through the weekend, then you want to have someone who has experience and education on handling emergency situations. Don’t put your new assistant on call if she can’t understand the symptoms between an abscessed tooth and pain from clenching.
New vs. Existing Patients
Decide now whether or not you’re going to be willing to meet new patients in your office after hours, as opposed to just meeting established patients in the office. If you see one person who is not a patient of record, word will get around - so decide what you want to be “known” for - great care vs. always available.
You can’t discuss seeing after-hours patients without addressing safety. If you’re a larger man, you’ll feel different about meeting patients in the office than a petite woman may be. Never arrange to meet someone that you don’t know well - just another reason why we suggest limiting after hours visits to people who are established patients.
If you’re going to cut into your personal evening or weekend time, it needs to be worth it. Patients need to understand that an after hours call or visit is going to cost them something extra. A modest $50 fee added onto after-hours visits is very reasonable. If you charge $25 for an after-hours call to be returned, you can have it arranged to waive the call fee if they are meeting you in the office. The policy specifics are up to you, but make a decision and stick with it.
In most cases, after-hours treatments are designed to get patients out of pain until they can be seen for a more complex procedure. Consider, instead of starting a root canal, placing a temporary filling, writing a prescription for antibiotics, and then scheduling the patient to come back on Monday during regular hours.