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Seriously: Nobody likes collections. Shylock, maybe, but nobody else. It’s depressing, it’s time-consuming, and it’s embarrassing to everyone involved.

These days, collecting past-due monies is more challenging today than ever, especially in the medical arena. It’s hard enough to get people to pay at the time of service, despite what you tell them. You get all the excuses: I forgot my wallet … I never carry my checkbook … Can’t you just bill me? They walk away, and you never see the money.

Here’s the problem, though: the patients have learned that we don’t mean it. Oh, sure, we may send them a few “this time we really mean it” final notices…but so what? If we don’t follow that up with action, a “final notice” is apt to make the patient think “Great! Now I don’t have to listen to you whine!”

Even worse is what is termed “friendly fraud”: a patient hands you a credit card, the transaction is processed … then two weeks later the payment is rescinded because the patient called the bank and said the appointment never happened or some other excuse. Even if you fight back against this type of ploy, it will cost you revenue.

Prevention vs. Cure

The best collections plan in the world is still far less desirable than not having to collect at all. Obviously, the best thing you can do is collect fees at the time of service. To aid in this, you must first and foremost be absolutely sure you inform patients of your fees and your financial policy before you do dental treatment.

More importantly, you must make sure they understand the policies. The best way to do that is to make detailed financial arrangements before treatment even begins. It’s a good idea to make out a treatment plan in advance, using easy-to-understand language in lieu of technical dental terminology. Make sure the treatment plan encompasses the entire process, and make very sure the patient clearly knows what he or she is getting into.

Collections Will Be Necessary

Of course, there will always be patients who want to claim ignorance after the fact. That’s why it’s crucial to do whatever you can to ensure you can counter the claim…before treatment ever begins.

  • First, put EVERYTHING in writing: from a legal perspective, if it isn’t on a signed piece of paper, it doesn’t exist (usually). Your treatment plan should include a disclaimer statement that allows for necessary-but-unanticipated course corrections.
  • Always, always, ALWAYS have the patient sign a) a consent form agreeing to allow you perform the treatment outlined in the plan; and b) a truth-in-lending financial agreement with clear explanations of various fees and payment options. Transparency is your friend here.
  • Be sure to follow follow through with whatever you promise, positive or otherwise. If you say you’ll follow up on an insurance claim, do so. If you explain that after three attempts, the account will be turned over to a collections agency, do that. You can’t expect patients to take you at your word if you aren’t true to it.
  • Consistency is also important when tracking past-due payments. You’ll immediately lose credibility if repeated “final” notices never result in further action. Not only that, but it can land you in hot water with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which states that sending more than one final notice is considered harassment. The patient can actually take you to court over an unpaid bill.

Above and beyond anything else, make sure that whatever policies you have in your dental practice, they’re written down and consistently followed. You’ll always have people who try to beat the system … but you can do your best to ensure that you’ve covered yourself before they strike.