After 29 years running an NHS practice, Gordon Downes made the move to private dentistry. Here, he shares his journey and what he learned about how to make the change successfully.

I bought the practice in 1989 and over the years it grew to a single-handed surgery with 2,500 NHS patients. I was seeing around 30-40 patients a day, and whilst things were running along quite smoothly, I was finding it harder and harder to overcome the feeling that we couldn’t adhere to rules and regulations without compromising standards.

Eventually, I just decided that I could no longer endure the sleepless nights worrying about falling foul of one of the authorities, and decided to make the move to private. I knew from the start that I wanted the support of a plan provider. My daughter, who was coming to work in the practice, had previously worked with Practice Plan and knew the level of expertise, experience and business support they could offer.

We opened the doors of the private practice in April 2015 and simply haven’t looked back. We now have a substantial private patient list and it continues to grow exponentially through word of mouth.

One of the biggest changes for me has been how my day-to-day work has transformed. I now see between 10 and 15 patients a day. Rather than feeling like I have to cram every appointment into 15 minutes, I can spend 20 minutes on a check-up or 30 on a filling.

It genuinely feels like I have been unshackled from the constraints I felt when working in the NHS. I can now do the quality of work that as a clinician you dream of, which just isn’t feasible when you’re tied to an NHS contract and targets.

Of course, such a big change doesn’t happen overnight and there are challenges and fears to overcome. So, I want to share five of the key lessons I learned, which may help anyone thinking of undertaking a similar process:

Investment is key

I was very aware that as a private practice we couldn’t expect our patients to accept the same experience they had under the NHS. We could not just close the doors one day, and open them the next and suddenly charge a higher fee. Several months before we officially converted to private we began investing in improving the premises.

We completely refurbished and revamped the practice, including two completely new surgeries and re-designed the layout of the reception area. Of course, this wouldn’t be necessary for everyone, but if it is, thoroughly planning it out beforehand makes the execution much more manageable.

We’ve also invested in new practice management technology and in training, both for clinical and business skills, which Practice Plan has helped us with in terms of courses in marketing and improving the front-desk experience.

Be willing to diversify

In line with undergoing more training, to really make the most of the opportunity to grow your practice privately, you should take advantage of the ability to offer a wider variety of services. For example, we now offer cosmetic dentistry, facial rejuvenation and Invisalign.

This has widened our pool of potential customers, which helps to build a sustainable practice. Offering different services can also be what makes you stand out in the market and attracts patients to choose you rather than the competition – which is not always dental, we know that some of our facial aesthetics patients attend here rather than a beauty spa, as they already have the relationship with us.

Undergoing clinical training and offering these new services does not just mean you can provide enhanced services to your patients, it is also incredibly professionally rewarding.

Map your journey in detail

When you begin thinking about becoming more independent from the NHS, it can feel daunting. However, if you begin to map out what it is you want to achieve, you can start to fill in the gaps of how it might work, what realistic targets are, what a feasible fee structure is, and it becomes altogether less scary as there are less unknowns.

I would also advise that when setting your budget, you should also add a contingency. Working everything out in detail, and knowing you have a buffer, will help you to have the confidence and reassurance to stick to your plan.

Build a team with a breadth of skills

Non-clinical skills are extremely important when it comes to building a well-rounded team that will be able to support you in achieving your practice’s goals. For example, members of our team are great at marketing, networking and social media – which are really not my areas of expertise. As a modern practice, you can’t ignore these things – we’ve attracted new patients through these methods.

A team who can complement each other and all contribute in different ways to the business’ success will make practice life run much smoother.

Prioritise customer service

As I alluded to earlier, patients in a private practice expect a higher level of care, both non-clinical and when they are in the chair. Since moving to private practice, we recruited a practice manager to the team and see fewer patients but for longer appointments, which means we have been able to focus more on providing that personal customer care. Patients really appreciate that level of service, and I believe it is key to them returning and recommending you to others.

After several decades in the NHS, moving to private dentistry was always going to be a significant shift in the way we work. And it has definitely been a learning curve, but I can wholeheartedly say I feel as if I have been unshackled and am now free to practise the kind of dentistry I’ve always aspired to.


Practice Plan is a specialist provider of practice-branded patient membership plans. Practice Plan partners with over 1,500 dental practices and supports hundreds of practices to make the move from NHS to private. If you are looking to gain more independence from the NHS, call 01691 684 165 or visit nhs.practiceplan.co.uk.