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The new Dental 99 clinics have replaced the role of the receptionist with digitalisation. But for all its success, even Dental 99’s founder says the model will not work for everyone. By John Burfitt
A few years ago, when Dr Gamer Verdian was analysing the traditional dental practice in order to set up the fixed-price Dental 99 model, it became apparent there was one workplace role that could be eliminated to trim operating costs.
That role was the front desk receptionist and sure enough, when the Dental 99 clinics did launch in early 2020, they did so with all enquiries, booking and fee transactions done through a digital platform.
“When we were looking at where to cut costs so that ultimately the patient pays less, we were able to utilise all the latest technology to replace what a receptionist usually does,” Dr Verdian says.
“In the initial analysis, we focused our technology on where costs could be saved. Nothing in the clinical room could be touched, so that’s when we looked into other areas, and that’s when reception came up.”
With the Dental 99 model, the only real person a patient deals with when they turn up for the appointment is the dentist. Every other part of the process has been incorporated into a digital service process.
But as Dr Verdian explains, this has demanded far more effort than just installing some new computer software.
“To make this work thoroughly, we had to develop our own software, and a lot of that took building it from the ground up,” he says, estimating it took almost two years to streamline the system into effective working shape.
“If you’re going to go with this model, it takes a real commitment to getting it right at the foundations, as it is a very different way of working. It creates a lot of challenges, and undertaking a whole range of testing first is absolutely paramount in determining if this way will work for the way you do business in your practice.”
Considering the patient experience is a fundamental for any business at all times, dental marketing consultant Carolyn S Dean, author of Fully Booked – Dental marketing secrets for a full appointment book, says. But the way the online experience has infiltrated so many areas in the past 18 months of COVID has resulted in a dramatic transformation in behaviour of even the most traditional of patients.
“When you think of the way expectations have changed, it’s now a case of digital first in so many areas,” she says. “The old model of booking through a receptionist was ‘practice-centric’ rather than ‘customer-centric’. There’s already been a major move to online booking, so this now raises questions about how the support-admin staff are best being utilised.”
The most effective way to determine what changes digitisation has really made on the role of a receptionist is to conduct what Dean calls a, ‘looking at your numbers’ study.
“You need to be studying patient behaviour, so you know who is calling in, how many are booking online, who is coming in through the website, and then looking at how quickly the receptionist is processing all of that, and what that has done to change that role,” she says. “Look to your numbers as they will reveal exactly what is going on within your business.”
Dr Verdian says the reception-less model of the Dental 99 clinics has attracted little if any negative responses among patients.
“The world has moved on so this does not come as much of a surprise to many people,” he says. “Almost all our patients understand this is how it works, and it is a different way of operating, but it’s something they get used to quickly. Overall, it has not caused many issues at all.”
While proud of the success of the Dental 99 model, Dr Verdian insists such a way of working is not suitable for every business.
“A receptionist is a most skilled person in a dental practice and never underestimate the value of the work they do,” he says. “So, of course, there is definitely still a place for a more personalised service of operating, and as successful as the Dental 99 model has been—and I think we will see more practices trying it—I don’t think it will ever completely replace the dental practice with the receptionist out front.
“But patient behaviour dictates a lot of what we do, and in these changing times, all of us really need to keep our ears to the ground on the ways that continues to adapt and evolve.”
One trend in some dental practices in recent times has seen receptionist duties being absorbed into the job descriptions of dental assistants and nurses.
Prime Practice’s Louise Howlett, the online community manager for practice managers, says, “It’s helpful when staff can perform both clinical and administrative duties, however using a surgery to take payments and make appointments isn’t a financially productive use of that space. The practice design needs to support this model.”
For all the many benefits that digitisation can offer in streamlining a practice, Howlett adds that a cohesive structure and system needs to be in place within the practice to ensure all areas are operating most effectively.
“The infrastructure that supports changing over to digitisation of some roles would need to be exceptionally robust,” she says. “You need to think about patients who fall through the cracks or how easily the schedule can be juggled around when patients want to make a change. They’re the areas where I would be concerned about a business leaving themselves open to a potential loss.”
While he insists the reception-less model will never be right for every practice, Dr Verdian says to achieve success with it, room must be made for lessons to be learned in a trial and error process.
“The most important thing is not to fire your receptionist and jump straight into it,” he stresses. “Instead, do a trial run first, maybe with an eight-week experiment so that you don’t burn your staff or your patients in case things go wrong,” he says.
“It may all work perfectly, or aspects of it might streamline some area of reception, or you may find it is not worth it in any way. However you approach the trial, go into it eyes wide open.”