Filling in

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The Latin phrase ‘locum tenens’ literally means ‘place holder’, however, there could be a whole lot more value behind your temporary replacement. Amanda Lohan reveals the hidden potential of the locum dentist.  By Amanda Lohan

Four hands are better than two—and a locum dentist makes that possible.
Four hands are better than two—and a locum dentist makes that possible.

Business continuity is the locum dentist’s domain. When weighing up the costs and benefits of taking on a locum, savvy dentists know that it’s not just about a continuation of income versus fixed expenses during an absence. While the opportunity cost of lost income may be a decisive factor, more important still is the reigning in of lost business over that period.

With the supply of dentists continuing to outstrip demand, customer retention is now more important than ever. These days, dentists who shut up shop for the holidays may find their existing and potential customers all too willing to take their business elsewhere.

It’s something the big corporates are counting on. “Locum dentists play a massive role in our branding,” says Sileana Cochrane, practitioner engagement consultant at Pacific Smiles Group. “In a lot of towns during the Christmas and New Year period, ours is the only practice that can stay open.”

The business continuity potential of the locum doesn’t stop there. You also need to factor in the period surrounding each absence. Dr Mark Hassed, of www.locumdentist.com.au, says that the greatest demand for locum dentistry comes from the regional and remote areas, where even a brief absence can result in a practice being swamped. By staying open and maintaining a consistent workload, a practice can better manage its load to avoid any stressful pre- and post-holiday gluts, thus staving off further client loss.

At Pacific Smiles, the majority of the 235 practitioners in the group work under an independent agreement that allows them six weeks of absence per year. In this context, Cochrane says that locum dentists are vital to the survival of the business. However, while locums are often called on to fill in during holiday periods, their real value lies in their ability to cover dentists during more extended periods of absence, such as continuing education, a serious illness or family emergency.

Getting more than you bargained for

According to Dr Hassed, there are two types of locum dentists, and while they both have their place, it is important to ensure that you’re getting the value you require. “You can get recent graduates or somebody who’s never run a successful practice. They will make mistakes, cheese off your patients, and productivity will be extremely low, but I think they have got a place and that place is to look after emergencies while you’re away.

“The other type is those who have run their own successful practice in the past, and who can walk into almost any practice and keep it operating seamlessly. Obviously that’s not going to come at the same pay rate,” says Dr Hassed.

The way you manage your business may be exposed to scrutiny when a highly skilled and experienced locum dentist is on the scene, but that shouldn’t scare you. Private practice dentistry can be lonely, and taking on a locum dentist can provide a rare opportunity to learn about the methods being employed in other practices. Cochrane says that a skilled locum dentist may help to identify gaps in your current service offering by introducing a different skillset and “fresh energy”.

“Oversupply helps with quality and direct applications. We’re dealing less and less with agency dentists, which we think is good. We’re spoilt for choice, and we’ll see the benefit more and more as younger dentists progress.” Sileana Cochrane, practitioner engagement consultant at Pacific Smiles Group

clipboardArguments against taking on locum dentists often centre around the cost. Indeed, in many cases they are called on simply to keep the cash flow going to offset fixed costs, and they are not be expected to make much, or any, profit.

The cost for a locum dentist can vary and his or her ability to earn for your practice will depend on a number of factors, including the existing practice turnover, the skill level of the locum, the depth of services you are willing to let them provide, as well as the support of existing staff. Dr Hassed says, “A skilled and well-supported locum can walk into an $8000 practice and keep it going at $8000. Drop a new grad in there and it drops back to $2000 a day.”

In this field, a growing oversupply of dentists can be a positive thing. “Oversupply helps with quality and direct applications,” says Cochrane. “We’re dealing less and less with agency dentists, which we think is good. We’re spoilt for choice and we’ll see the benefit more and more as younger dentists progress.”

Dr Hassed argues that the biggest driving factor behind a skilled locum’s ability to generate profit for the business is the support of existing staff. “As a locum, you are in a foreign environment. You don’t know the materials, equipment, patients or anything about how the office operates. The staff need to provide a high level of support or it falls flat.”

Beyond simply maximising efficiency, existing staff can play a much larger role in establishing patient trust in the new dentist. “If the staff are confident in you, the patients will be too,” says Dr Hassed. It can be as simple as changing the language used to introduce the new dentist, moving from ‘Dr Brown is away, we’ve got someone filling in, or would you prefer to wait until Dr Brown gets back?’ to ‘Dr Brown is away at the moment but we have a terrific locum dentist who can look after you’. If you intend to generate any sort of profit from your locum then it is essential that you train your existing staff in how to manage these types of conversations. ?

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