Heart of the community
Sandeep Sharma talks about how he made sure he had a regular income when opening his own dental practice
Kent dentist Sandeep Sharma had originally trained in London, and practised both in the capital and in Tunbridge Wells. When he began to look around for a suitable practice of his own in 2000, he came across a first floor practice for sale in the rural community of Staplehurst in Kent’s Low Weald, famed for its glorious orchards and iconic oast houses.
While the building oozed character – with charming exposed beams and quirky sloping floors – it was quite dark inside and the somewhat rickety staircase at the rear made it inaccessible for many patients. It needed a major overhaul, but Sandeep decided to take it on and gradually improve it once he was established.
It was a mostly NHS practice, but the previous owner took many of his patients with him to his new practice a few miles away, so Sandeep was forced to make some early decisions on how to begin and grow a largely new patient base.
He began small, offering some private care alongside his NHS contract, getting to know the local community and establishing the practice’s credentials.
The right choices
His practice team included Laura Baker-Fawcus, a qualified dental nurse and now practice manager. Laura was born and bred in Staplehurst; her fondness for the area and its people is infectious. Her connections have enabled the practice to take part in numerous local events over the years, boosting people’s awareness and trust in the practice.
Sandeep was soon drawn to Denplan membership, not least because it was the largest dental payment plan provider, he felt it had a well-developed brand and excellent reputation. Joining would mean the regular income from patients on a Denplan Care or Denplan Essentials plan would keep the pressure off financially, so he could make plans for the practice’s future and concentrate on delivering the very best care for his patients.
With the help of his local Simplyhealth Professionals business development consultant, Sandeep and his team initiated the move from NHS to Denplan plans for around half of his patients in 2005.
There was remarkably little resistance from patients once the benefits of membership were explained to them and most seemed to appreciate its value. They were assisted by the Denplan practice support team and the transition went very smoothly.
Since then, they have benefitted from regular advice and support from their business development consultant, Julia Kilby, and Sandeep and the team are full of praise for her.
‘Julia is always on hand to offer business advice or answer any queries about our Denplan plans,’ says Sandeep. ‘She has made sure we’re all completely confident in explaining all aspects of the product and has inspired us with plenty of great ideas.
‘Early on, we were spending thousands on advertising in various local publications without any real targeting. Julia offered us an Acorn profiling report and brought a member of Denplan’s marketing team along to give us some extra tips.
‘We had assumed our local base here was predominantly older patients, but the Acorn report showed a surprisingly young demographic, which made us rethink our marketing strategy.’
Julia and her colleagues made suggestions on using the practice team’s local connections to improve their brand recognition, including offering to speak to schoolchildren, sponsoring local events and distributing promotion packs to people moving into the community, especially in the new housing developments springing up around the village.
‘We love to get involved and for people to know that we see ourselves as part of the community,’ says practice manager Laura. ‘We’ve taken a stand at the annual village carnival where we’ve promoted the practice, given out dental goody bags and encouraged people to give us a try. We also sponsor the local under 13s football team, Staplehurst Monarchs, and local charity events, so recognition of our name has definitely increased.’
With many patients securely signed up to Denplan plans, Sandeep felt able to make some much-needed refurbishments to the practice, and had the surgeries and waiting room upgraded and smartened up, without losing any of the building’s wonderful period character.
When the downstairs shop became available, it was a perfect opportunity to expand over two floors, even installing a state-of-the-art lift so more elderly or disabled patients would no longer struggle with access to the upstairs surgeries.
The new reception area is filled with light and fitted with sleek, modern furnishings, while the addition of a downstairs surgery means the practice has been able to grow its patient list further – and now has three dentists and a hygienist providing dental care.
They have more than 550 patients on Denplan plans, while continuing to offer NHS dentistry for children registered with the practice. The third dentist, currently part-time, will soon be increasing her hours to meet the demand for appointments.
Achieving patient goals
Besides the marketing support, which has included tips on using referral cards and embracing social media to promote the practice, Sandeep and his team have benefitted from Simplyhealth Professionals’ training events and regulatory support over the years. They have also been delighted with the new flexible payment platform recently introduced by Simplyhealth as a way to help patients spread the cost of certain treatments.
‘These have been a godsend,’ explains Sandeep. ‘We offer a wide range of cosmetic and restorative treatments, including veneers, tooth whitening and straightening options and, of course, these can be prohibitively expensive for some patients. The flexible payment platform is ideal because we’ve been able to help more people access the treatments they really want. One of my patients has yearned for a full set of teeth for ages, and thanks to being able to spread the cost over 10 months we were finally able to help him to realise his wish – he is so happy!’
With a smart, easy-to-navigate website, a proactive Facebook page and comprehensive dental care options for their patients, this cheerful, dedicated practice team has made great strides in placing Forge House Dental right at the heart of its thriving Kent village.