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The Power of Punctuality: Overcoming Chronic Tardiness

Posted Feb 1st, 2021 in the wire, thought leadership, 2021

Dr. Bruce Freeman, Director of Patient Experience, dentalcorp


It was author Eric Dickey who coined the phrase, early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable. Despite our access to multiple devices with alarms and reminders, many of us still find ourselves dashing into work, uttering a breathless apology to our colleagues and patients – who notably arrived on time. Why does this continue to happen? 

Life as we know it is unpredictable, and we must be sensitive to the unexpected occurrences that can result in lateness; however, that is not what we are discussing here. Instead, this is a discussion about chronic lateness and its unintended—yet highly damaging—outcomes.  

Sending the wrong kind of messages

Everyone’s time is valuable, and when you are late, it sends a clear signal that you feel your time is more precious. Chronic tardiness speaks volumes and can often send the message that you are disorganized, inconsiderate, and unprofessional, to name a few. When the chronic lateness of a team member is tolerated, it creates an environment where rules are not taken seriously. And if the dentist or practice manager fails to lead by example and is consistently late, it further perpetuates a culture of unprofessionalism within the practice.

Ripple effects

Once the first patient is kept waiting, the tsunami-like cascade of lateness crashes through the rest of the schedule, negatively impacting patients and team members alike. The administrative team can be subject to angry glares from waiting patients and growling bellies of team members who missed lunch, all adding to the deafening rumble of dissatisfaction throughout the clinic. As a result, the Patient Experience Score for the day suffers tremendously, and the subsequent result of keeping team members late and risking patients leaving your office can negatively impact your practice’s reputation. 

Overcoming chronic tardiness

Nobody intends to be chronically late, nor does anyone want to be labelled as the 'tardy teammate.' Rather, chronic lateness is often a result of poor time-management and taking on much more in life than we can handle. Many of us healthcare folks want to try and please everyone, but in the process of doing so, we often slip-up and ending up disappointing everyone. 

So, what can you do to overcome chronic tardiness in your practice? 

  • Cross-train the practice team on managing the schedule. This will help ensure the schedule can be managed despite an absence due to lateness or illness. 
  • Consider staggering the schedule. This may be necessary if the person in question is a highly valued team member and their current situation merits consideration.
  • Actions must have repercussions. Punctuality is part of the job and must be outlined in the practice policy, with the consequences of being late clearly articulated. 

Unavoidable delays

While we should always strive to arrive on time, sometimes it just isn’t possible. The following tips can help smooth things over with an (understandably) disgruntled patient who has been left waiting.

  • Communicate the issue. If it is a genuine patient emergency that is at play, a team member can inform your next patient(s) that you are taking extra time to assist someone in need as you would do for them if they were in need.
  • Proactively offer to reschedule the patient’s appointment. If the subsequent patient cannot stay longer, offer to reschedule the appointment to accommodate his/her schedule. 
  • Consider a small gesture of apology. This is where team members have the authority to provide an apology in the form of a Tim Hortons gift-card or similar to acknowledge the inconvenience that has been caused. A follow-up phone call or email from the dentist also goes a long way in accepting responsibility and showing respect.

Navigating patient tardiness

Patients, too, are sometimes tardy for their appointments. If a patient is late, it is crucial to stick to the schedule and end the appointment as planned – even if that means not all the work can be completed, and they have to come in for a follow-up appointment. Some patients become terribly upset when they are quite late but expect you to complete the work with far less time than needed. Learning to say, “I would not be able to devote the time required to do a good job for you,” is far better than showing up late for your next appointment and giving a lackluster effort that will only compromise your work.  

It is important to manage expectations with patients without comprising their experience. Always frame the issue from the patient’s perspective. Explain that you want the best possible outcome for the patient and, unfortunately, the desired result cannot be achieved safely in the time remaining. Be mindful of your wording and tone when speaking with a patient and, when possible, ask to speak with them in private. Finally, be sure to thank them for their understanding.

While delays are sometimes unavoidable, all practice team members should consistently strive to show up on time. Arriving on-schedule fosters a culture of professionalism, ensures the practice runs smoothly, and provides an exceptional patient experience. Leveraging the above tips can help you overcome chronic tardiness and harness the power of punctuality in your practice. 

As originally published in Oral Health


About the Author

Dr. Bruce Freeman is the Director of Patient Experience for dentalcorp, helping dentists across Canada achieve clinical success that results in the best experience for their patients.

Bruce is an international lecturer on clinical orthodontics, facial pain, patient experience, and virtual surgical planning. He is the co-director of the Facial Pain Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital. He further directs the Wellness Program for dental residents at Mount Sinai Hospital, emphasizing how self-care leads to the best patient care.

Bruce is an honors graduate of the University of Toronto. He completed the Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester and returned to the University of Toronto to complete his diploma in orthodontics and his Master of Science degree in temporomandibular disorders and orofacial pain. He is also a certified yoga instructor with additional training in breathing techniques, meditation, and trauma-informed movement. He can be reached at bruce@drbvf.com.  

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