8 ways to future-proof your practice

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Future-proofIn the tightening dental market, practitioners need to transform their practices as quickly and intelligently as possible. Industry experts tell Kerryn Ramsey how to embrace the new dental economy

In the face of increasing competition and greater financial pressures, practitioners need to improve their efficiency, income and profitability. There’s no magic trick that will put you ahead of the game, but it’s important to embrace the new way of working in the 21st century.

1: New-world service for patients

Customer service has always been a crucial skill when running a practice but now there’s a new focus—it’s important to look after the whole person rather than just fixing hard and soft tissue. Patients are better informed and expect more these days so dentists need to cover everything from treatment options to sleep apnoea. While this is an approach favoured by holistic dentists, it’s important for general dentists to look at the bigger picture in the new economy.

Dr David Penn, a Sydney dentist who founded Southern Cross Dental Laboratories in 1983, says dentists need to present a broader spectrum of treatments, products and services. “Then you’ll maximise your chances of success in your practice,” he says. “But if you want to stick your head in the sand and only hang on to what you learnt at dental school 10 years ago, you’re in murky waters.”

2: Sub-specialising is the new black

With so much competition in the market, and an oversupply of dental healthcare professionals, a dental practice has to stand out to keep the business model afloat. “The bottom end is saturated with supply,” says Dr Penn. He points out that when he completed his degree in 1978, there were less than 40 dentists per 100,000 of population. “But now with nine dental schools and an influx of overseas graduates, as well as therapists and hygienists broadening practice options, there are now 90 to 95 dental healthcare professionals per 100,000 in Australia’s larger cities.”

Dr Penn, who recently established Penn College, has recognised that the way to attract patients and keep your existing clientele is to sub-specialise—this could be postgraduate qualifications in areas such as aesthetic orthodontics, dental sleep medicine, facial aesthetics or oral medicine. “Offering two or three different sub-specialisations gives the dental professional a point of difference,” he says.

“If you have nothing special to offer, the chances of you earning a good living from dentistry are likely to become significantly harder. So, offering procedures that few dentists provide will keep your books full and busy.”

3: Importance of design

The cost of constructing a new practice has doubled over the past decade, according to architect Sam Russell of Create Dental. The long-term benefit, however, is immeasurable. “Well-lit and comfortable spaces will change the way dentists, staff and patients feel and operate,” says Russell.

He says the quality of space will, in turn, have a direct effect on staff retention and a patient’s willingness to return. “When we create a ‘wow’ factor in the design, it gets patients talking and will help in the referral of new patients. Keeping up to date with technology and incorporating a layout that maximises the efficiency of the practice is also a benefit.”

4: Broaden your skill set

University education, as well as ongoing clinical studies, is all part and parcel of the dental profession but practitioners who run their own businesses need to take on a new skill set in today’s economic climate.

“It’s competitive out there so they need to be operating their practice like it’s a business,” says Geoff Parkes, co-founder of the Australian College of Dental Education, which covers business and entrepreneurial aspects as well as clinical skills. “The business side is something a lot of dentists haven’t studied or have done poorly in the past. Improving business skills is one of the best ways to prepare for the future.”

5: Rethink on social media

Social media is no longer a choice—it’s virtually mandatory to publicise your practice and to communicate with patients. While this can range from Facebook and Twitter posts to blogs and Instagram photos, some experts are suggesting that less is more. “A long-term practice can go from strength to strength without going anywhere near social media,” says Geoff Parkes. He says that providing good service and internal marketing may sound old-fashioned but it still keeps existing businesses booming. However, when setting up a new practice, particularly in the CBD, Parkes says it’s imperative for the practitioner to effectively use social media in order to spread the word.

6: Geriatric woes

Older Australians have a longer life expectancy than previous generations and, according to an article by JM Chalmers for the Australian Dental Journal, they’re now retaining more of their natural teeth and have greatly reduced rates of Decayed, Missing, Filled Index (DMFT).

So, does this mean a practice’s appointment schedule is full to the brim? Not necessarily. “Geriatric patients are the ones with a million dollars in their super fund but since they are lucky to earn three-and-a-half per cent fixed interest, they are circumspect about investing in complex treatments,” says Dr Penn. While it’s impossible to forecast when or if interest rates will rise, it’s something to consider as one of the factors that will impact upon your practice’s business.

7: Embrace the eco-friendly principle

Introducing more eco-friendly aspects in the practice not only helps the environment—it also saves money. “Without a doubt, this is the direction all businesses should be heading,” says Sam Russell of Create Dental. “Due to the number of patients that dentists have contact with, there is real opportunity to lead by example.” To find out how to transform your practice into a ‘greener’ surgery, turn to the US-based Eco Dentistry Association, which has a growing number of Australian dentists on the books.

8: Don’t over-capitalise

Since the dental business is more competitive than ever, it’s important not to over-capitalise, particularly when opening a new practice.

Even in the new dental economy, there are some basics that need to be followed. As Parkes explains, “Build your practice solidly from the base up and grow your patient list through good communication and good clinical practices. When you’re in a position where you’re comfortable with your practice and it has a sound base, that’s the time to look at adding the latest technology.”

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