Dental emergencies are always going to happen. How we handle scheduling those patients can dictate the entire day for the office.

For example, I visited an office recently where the doctor had four patients scheduled back to back for an emergency exam and X-ray. He only had 30 minutes scheduled for each of these emergency patients. One patient needed an extraction and two others needed a root canal. He didn’t have enough time to treat the patients within the 30-minute appointment and they had to be scheduled for another day. It was a stressful situation for the doctor, frustrating for the patients, and unproductive for the office.

I’ve found that if you ask certain questions when scheduling an emergency appointment, you can schedule an appropriate appointment length.

For example, if a patient has a broken crown, chances are they’ll need a new one. If you schedule enough time to do the new crown that day, the patient doesn’t have to come back for a separate appointment, and the office increases production.

Here are some of the questions you can ask a patient on the phone to better plan for their emergency visit. While I would never suggest trying to diagnose a patient over the phone, you can ask certain questions to give your clinical team more information and be better prepared.

What type of symptoms are they experiencing and are they in pain?

I would always schedule a patient who’s in pain the day they called. But often when they call, they aren’t in pain, for example they may have chipped a tooth. If they’re not in pain, it’s not a true dental emergency. I may try to schedule the patient the next day or at a time that is more convenient for the office.

Is the pain constant? And is there sensitivity to hot or cold?

These questions can help you determine if it may be an endodontic situation. If you refer out for root canals, it may be a good idea to find out what availability the endodontist has.

How long has the tooth been bothering them? Where is tooth located?

These questions give the clinical team an opportunity to look at the patient’s chart and X-rays ahead of time to be better prepared.

If a crown came off, do they have the crown? Is the crown broken or intact?

This helps to determine if it will be a re-cement or new crown and can help you gauge the amount of time to schedule.

How old is the crown?

This gives the administrative team an opportunity to research the patient’s insurance replacement periods.

Did the tooth have a root canal?

If an endodontically treated tooth is broken it may not be restorable. This may result in the patient needing to have the tooth extracted, so you can schedule the appointment length accordingly.

Asking these types of questions up front when the patient calls can be a little more time consuming, but it saves time and stress when the patient is in the office. I think it’s important to be as prepared as possible when treating patients. Getting more information from the patient helps the front office team and the clinical team provide the best treat possible to the patient. Document the information you gather during the phone call in the Contacts module so that each member of your team can access the information when they need it.


Charlotte Skaggs is the founder of Vector Dental Consulting LLC, a practice management firm focused on taking offices to the next level. Charlotte co-owned and managed a successful dental practice with her husband for 17 years. She has a unique approach to consulting based on the perspective of a practice owner.