A smiling headshot of Tracy Gryger.

By Tracy Gryger, MAADOM

The cost of dental treatment can be intimidating for many. So much so that patients may postpone seeing a dentist for fear that the cost will exceed their means. Some patients schedule because they may have recently acquired new insurance and expect the insurance plan to cover most of the cost, only to find that they are too optimistic about their coverage.

How can offices deal with these issues and encourage patients to maintain their dental health? The solution is to have a system in place based on financial discussions. Your system should consist of the following: transparency, knowledge, cost, insurance benefits, out-of-pocket expenses, payment options, and clear financial policies. Let’s take a closer look at each of these. 

Transparency – Be open to discussing your fees with patients. A combination of factors go into determining and establishing fee schedules. As a financial coordinator, you must have confidence that your practice offers the best fees based on the office’s quality of care while covering the overall expenses. The right person for these discussions should have no trouble quoting prices for large cases. 

Knowledge – The financial discussion must be handled by a staff member who is knowledgeable in the practice’s financial policies, understands treatment planning presentation, and is familiar with the financial options the practice has in place to help the patients move forward with treatment. This financial discussion is not meant to “sell” dentistry. Your patients must come into a financial discussion to understand the recommended treatment. That burden falls solely on the dentist. The financial staff member should have a clear clinical understanding of treatment to answer simple questions but should never recommend any treatment not presented to the patient by the dentist. 

Cost – The financial coordinator should discuss the total cost of the recommended treatment, not just focus on the expected patient portion. Explain to the patient the total charges regardless of insurance coverage so they are not surprised by the fee if the insurance does not cover something. 

Insurance Benefit – Actual insurance benefits depend on a contract between the insurance company and the Insured. Two patients under the same policy with the same treatment can be covered differently, depending on policy frequencies and limitations established under their plan. A financial person can never guarantee that something will or will not be covered. The “SERVICE” that can be provided by a financial person is to go over the breakdown of their plan coverages for the patient to have a better understanding of the plan and how it works. It’s important to have a financial staff member who is knowledgeable about insurance or works closely with an insurance coordinator to determine the individual’s coverage, including deductibles, co-payments, and policy limitations. 

Out-of-pocket cost – The financial person can provide an “estimated” out-of-pocket cost based on the information provided by the patient’s insurance company. Remember, the out-of-pocket is based on their contract with their insurance company. Insurances can surprise everyone and not cover something their benefits allow for. Remember, even written authorizations from insurance do not guarantee coverage, so a financial staff member should never guarantee coverage.

Payment options – It’s imperative that the financial person go over payment options during every financial discussion to determine with the patient what is right for them. Some options may include cash, credit cards, in-house financing, memberships, credit card financing such as Care Credit, or loan financing such as Cherry, as well as whether discounts are offered and when they are offered. Financial discussions must be documented, and the financial coordinator and the patient must sign payment plans. 

Financial Policies – All practices must have a financial policy that should be included in their new patient paperwork. Policies need to be communicated to patients in writing. Policies regarding appointment scheduling, cancellation fees, and payment deadlines are expectations between the dental office and the patient and must be clearly communicated. 

Assuming you have gone through the effort of implementing a financial system in your practice, there is still the realm of what I refer to as “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Over 38 years of dental experience, I have experienced all three and have learned from each one. 

The Good News – We have learned to communicate openly with patients regarding their dental care. Our practice builds trust by being transparent and offering a safe, private space where finances can be discussed without judgment. It ensures that the patient is fully informed of the treatment that will be provided so they can anticipate the cost. Patients often respond, “That is better than what I expected.” In ALL cases, patients leave with a better understanding of their insurance benefits and can make decisions based on their finances and the options the practice provides. Our practice is proud to provide education that many offices overlook. When your patients feel there is an advocate in the office that they can turn to to help plan a strategy to get treatment done, they are thankful and are more likely to follow through with treatment. 

The Bad News – Lack of clear communication can lead to mistrust, misunderstanding, and frustration with the dental practice. This can occur if financial discussions do not happen or the treatment changes and the patient is unaware of the changes. Unexpected changes in treatment create unexpected costs, which can impact the practice negatively if not handled properly. This can lead to unsatisfied patient experiences, and mistrust can lead to the loss of patients. It’s important that all new patients have financial discussions after their exams and that any existing patients have financial discussions about any new treatment being recommended. This means having a dedicated staff member ready at all times to make sure patients stay informed. 

The Ugly News – Even with the best intentions, dental offices can experience miscommunications and disputes over finances, billing, or payment arrangements. Life changes can affect a patient’s ability to follow through with the expectations of the practice. This can create tension between staff and patients and affect the practice’s reputation. It’s imperative that these occurrences are handled promptly and professionally, whether it be by the financial coordinator, office manager, or doctor. The office must have protocols in place on rare occasions a patient feels that their trust has been broken. 

Our practice’s rule is “Firm in Principle, Flexible in Application.” Our goal is to foster positive relations with our patients and build trust that we will do what we can to accommodate their needs without disrupting our core policies. 

Should you shy away from financial discussions? Absolutely not! The benefits far outweigh the negatives. Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations about finances. All you can do is offer the best financial options your practice can implement and help your patients determine which option is best for them. 

About the Author:

Tracy joined the dental world in 1986 and is very proud to have worked for the same dental office for 38 years. She started her career as a dental assistant and assisted for 5 years; however, her passion was administration. Tracy was drawn to the daily tasks of administrative duties and, before long, was offered an Office Manager position. She has experienced many changes in the dental world over the years and has helped her office grow and eventually merge with another office to become what we consider a very successful dental practice.

Tracy has been a member of AADOM since 2015 and received her Masters of AADOM in 2021. She currently lives in Dannemora, NY. Tracy has a beautiful grown daughter, Emily, and many “grandpets”. When she is not busy in the dental world, you can usually find her in the wood shop with my best friend and partner, Tom, and our Cavachon, Bullock. Her newest hobbies have been wood-turning, beekeeping, and gardening. To learn more about AADOM, visit www.dentalmanagers.com.