Those dentists eagerly awaiting news of the alleged 'new' contract were left with more questions than answers following last month’s BDA Conference. During his keynote speech, health minister Earl Howe urged the profession not to 'mistake my caution for hesitancy', but with the contract pilots now in its third year the government can hardly blame the profession for being frustrated by the lack of clear direction.
With the much-lauded green shoots of economic recovery almost ready to bloom and the inflation falling below wage rises for the first time since 2008, dentists need to be ready to take advantage of the increase in patients’ disposable income. So, if you are a dentist with an NHS contract what is the best route for you to take?
Understandably, many practitioners with NHS contracts are reluctant to make a firm commitment either way until it’s made clear what form their future remuneration might take. But in the meantime, rather than remaining inactive, there are a number of practical steps that a practice can take to seize firmer control of their destiny.
Moving to private
Of course, any practice with half an eye on becoming either wholly or partially private, needs to carefully consider how their business would operate in this new competitive environment. For many practices, the freedom that comes with embracing the private sector is a tantalising prospect and for those who plan and execute their move effectively, the benefits can be substantial.
In 2006, when a tidal wave of practices made the move to private provision, there were some who made a snap decision and quite literally made the change overnight. However, a mere eight years later, the dental landscape has changed considerably. Back then, access to NHS dentistry was limited, the economy was in a fairly healthy state and patients were less demanding. Today, private patients demand service, care and treatment of the highest quality, all of which must be obvious to the patient from their very first interaction with the practice.
The first step for any successful business is to get the product right and this is especially true of private practices. By ‘product’, I am not just referring to clinical dentistry, as the quality of this should be pretty much a given. ‘Product’ in dental marketing terms refers to every element of the service a patient receives and includes:
- How you communicate with patients; face to face, on the phone and via electronic means
- Their first visual impression of the practice, both inside and out
- How patients are treated, by both clinical and non-clinical teams
- The role of new technology in benefiting patients
- How treatment options are discussed with patients
- How dental care is made affordable
- Methods by which patients are encouraged to return to the practice.
It’s essential to ensure that all of these elements are considered thoroughly at the outset and certainly before any promotional activity is undertaken. Patients should get a distinct feel for what the newly private practice stands for from the word go and a poorly conceived flyer campaign or rushed website is likely to give a negative first impression during those all-important first few months following conversion.
A team approach
In undertaking such a project it is vital that the principal takes the team with them on the journey, any dissenting voices must be heard and if possible pacified, ideally by explaining the rationale for change and overcoming objections by discussion and co-operation. Failure to achieve this ‘team approach’ can be disruptive and in the most extreme circumstances has been known to derail the whole privatisation plan. In contrast, explaining your plans and roll-out can have a very positive impact on morale and provide a renewed focus for the whole team.
Listening to the thoughts and ideas of all members of the team can be an eye-opening process. Often those outside the clinical setting have very different relationships with patients, who may confide their thoughts to a receptionist, but wouldn’t dream of divulging them to the dentist. Topics such as cost, fear and minor complaints are all the subject of discussion over the front desk and receptionists can prove to be valuable eyes and ears for the business. With this in mind, encouraging openness in an environment of trust and respect for everyone’s views can be a very helpful exercise that should be undertaken regularly.
Making it easy for private patients to accept treatment plans and keeping them returning for regular appointments is key to maintaining steady revenue streams and positive cash flow, so is consequently vital to the success of a private practice. Dental plans can provide a strategic advantage for practices in achieving these dual aims and when adopting a practice-branded plan, dentists also benefit from increased patient loyalty, which will ultimately add value to their brand.
By spreading the cost of routine care a practice-branded dental plan can help to alleviate one of the barriers to regular attendance. Using this as part of your privatisation strategy integrates the dental plan into the ‘product’ itself and can become a key part of the package that a private dentist is offering.
Becoming a wholly or partially private practice requires careful thought and consideration, not only about the promotional aspects of the new venture, but also about the product itself, the price you will charge for it and the way in which you will help your patients overcome the barriers to purchase. Converting to private practice is not simply about cosmetic changes, it is about making sure that every part of the product you present to patients is the best it can possibly be and is well suited to your target market. Using a dental plan as a tool to encourage patients to return for routine appointments, whilst building patient loyalty and gaining the benefits of improved cash flow, creates a win-win scenario, which will benefit both patients and practice alike.
The decision to convert to private practice can be a difficult one, particularly for those who have worked within the confines of the NHS for many years. There are many dentists that simply want to practise dentistry to the best of their ability with an element of predictability and stability for their business. A dental plan company that will stand beside you and help you face the challenges of conversion is an asset that should not be underestimated. DPAS’ experience in helping practices to successfully make this transition means that we are well placed to provide the advice and support required, ensuring your first steps into the world of private dentistry take you in the right direction.