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How to start generating patients in dental school

Date: November 01, 2021

Author: Louise Sinclair

After a year or two of intense theory and lab practice, you’re finally ready to start treating patients. It’s one of the most exciting times in your dental education, but there’s just one catch – you have to find the patients first!

Patient recruitment is an ongoing challenge for dental professionals, so mastering this valuable skill now will pay dividends throughout dental school and beyond. With experienced faculty members overseeing your work and fellow students around to share their wisdom, there’s no better time than now to dive right in. Luckily, it’s easier than you might think! Here are nine tried-and-tested strategies you can use to start generating patients today.

1. Make use of social media

Social media offers a wealth of opportunities to reach potential patients. Many patients these days look for dental care providers online, so a strong local presence in particular will serve you well. You can use platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to create content that explains oral hygiene and oral health conditions in an engaging way, and then connect them to the care you can provide and treatments you’re offering.

Community platforms, or even your local neighborhood Facebook group, are also great because they let you target people in your immediate local area. Link all of your content together with a unique hashtag and use it on your business cards and flyers so that people can easily find all of your content and get to know you.

2. Don’t forget good old-fashioned marketing

Although we're in the age of social media, traditional offline marketing can still be super valuable. Print out business cards and flyers advertising your services, pass them to your patients and contacts, and leave them in locations like:

  • Apartment complex lobbies

  • Churches

  • Community centers

  • Coffee shops

  • Restaurants

  • Gyms

  • Grocery stores.

Those in the service industry are unlikely to receive dental benefits from their employers, so you may find that the staff as well as the customers will be keen to take you up on your offer. College students are another group that typically have lower access to dental insurance, so consider leaving flyers around your campus and asking your friends to share your business cards. If you’re looking for pediatric patients, ask local school administrators or nurses to pass your details on to any young students in need of dental care or make them available to parents.

3. Start building your professional network

It’s never too early to start building your professional network, so get to know your professors and join student interest groups at your school. More senior students will sometimes refer patients on or bring less experienced students in on their own cases, so it’s worth making yourself known to them!

You can also engage with a huge network of fellow students and dental experts by joining groups like:

4. Get to know local dental providers

If anybody understands the struggle of recruiting patients, it’s your future fellow dental professionals! Local dentists and orthodontists will often encounter patients who don’t have sufficient insurance or funds to cover the treatments they need. Introduce yourself to them and let them know which types of cases you need, and they’ll more than likely be happy to send patients your way.

5. Think beyond dentistry

Local physicians, family doctors and pediatricians are another great referral source, as they too often encounter patients with dental conditions and insufficient insurance. As we learn more and more about the connection between oral and systemic health, they will no doubt appreciate having an affordable option and individual to whom they can refer patients in need.

6. Consider your personal network too

If you’re studying close to home, you may already have a pre-existing network in the form of your family and friends. Put the word out that you’re looking for patients and ask your loved ones to spread the word to their own networks, too.

Some programs may not allow you to provide care to close relatives or partners, so check first. If the rules prohibit it, consider proposing an arrangement with your classmates where you refer your close contacts to each other.

7. If you don’t ask…

… you don’t get! Don’t wait for those referrals to come to you. Proactively let your personal and professional contacts know if you’re short on patients or if you’re in need of a particular type of case, and you could be the first person they’ll think of when a suitable patient comes their way. For professional contacts in particular, be sure to find out if there’s anything you can help them with too and return the favor where possible.

8. Get involved in community outreach

Community outreach and volunteering are wonderful ways to gain hands-on dental experience, widen your professional network and, of course, meet potential patients. Look for non-profit dental clinics in your community, and ask local dentists, hygienists and orthodontists if you can offer your support for their outreach activities.

You can also arrange your own community events. Liaise with professors, fellow students and local contacts to identify areas of need in your community and brainstorm ways that you can help. Ideas might include:

  • Oral health lessons in local schools, daycares or pre-natal groups
  • Dental health stalls at local fairs and events

You can find lots of ideas, resources and guidance for community outreach events at:

9. Follow up with your patients

Finally, when you’ve found your patients, earn their loyalty by staying in touch, following up with them after their treatment, and providing oral health advice as needed. This extra effort reassures your patients that they’re in good hands and they’re not just a case number. Not only are they more likely to seek you out for future treatment, but they’ll also refer their friends and family to you.