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The Entrepreneurial Dentist: 5 ways your practice can thrive in today’s competitive marketplace

March 29, 2017
Today’s successful dental practices must operate with agility and clear purpose. This author likes to call the new breed of dental health-care provider and business owner as practitioners of “Entrepreneurial Dentistry,” and their service "white glove."

Today’s successful dental practices must operate with agility and clear purpose. This author likes to call the new breed of dental health-care provider and business owner as practitioners of “Entrepreneurial Dentistry,” and their service "white glove."

The world of dentistry is changing. But that's nothing new. Sole proprietor and family-owned dental practices have always faced challenges in the pursuit of better serving their patients. What is accelerating are pressures generated by market-driven factors that can undermine the financial viability of your practice, namely the rise of Dental Service Organizations (DSOs) or corporate dentistry, and increasingly stingy dental insurance payouts.

In response, today’s successful dental practices must operate with agility and clear purpose. Patient retention, new client acquisition, and bottom line profitability require the highest of professional standards and unwavering business management skills. In short, a model dental practice must fire on all cylinders on a day-to-day basis.

I like to think of this new breed of health-care providers and business owners as practitioners of “Entrepreneurial Dentistry.”

What defines an entrepreneurial dentist? They’re the ones you meet at conferences who are constantly exploring solutions that can deliver greater efficiencies. They enroll in courses to expand their knowledge and broaden their knowledge. Above all, entrepreneurial dentists and their staff relentlessly seek new and better ways to stay on top of their game.

I recently wrote a research-based white paper called "A Modern Approach for Practice Management.” In this brief but comprehensive primer, I document practical and actionable steps doctors can take to meet these challenges. It’s a distillation of what I’ve learned by watching and learning from those who always rise to the occasion. These five tips are examples of some of the strategies I’ve seen used by the “best of the best” to remain competitive:

1. Offer “white glove” service to patients
You’ve undoubtedly heardthe buzz about concierge dentistry. While the concept of membership medicine has proven successful among private practice physicians and health-care syndicates, the model has seemingly stalled in the dental industry. Although some dental practices have found success making “house calls” and delivering dental care in patients’ homes, data is scarce that shows real traction in offering more access to services through costlier fee schedules /or regular membership billing. Most likely the difference between the two areas is that patients perceive a higher value to fast and guaranteed access to health care than to dental care. Booking an immediate appointment with a dentist, even if due to a dental emergency, is simply not as difficult as being treated by a personal physician at a moment’s notice.

However, building closer relationships with patients through more personalized care and greater convenience certainly does pay dividends to dental practices that are doing so. Whether you call it your own “white glove service” or simply consider it a high standard of responsiveness to client needs, it will set you apart and earn the loyalty of your patients.

2. Focus on your practice’s attitude
Do you know the number one reason patients leave a dental practice? It's not prices or service. Studies show that patients take their dental needs elsewhere because they don’t feel sufficiently cared for and valued. The most effective way to address this problem is to evaluate and improve the attitude of your practice.

Radiate positive energy—Approach every interaction as an opportunity to make a warm connection. A genuine smile and thoughtful word can start the day off right for your colleagues and set the tone for a nervous patient. Be proactive in finding solutions to help your team get the job done and go the extra mile to provide superior customer service.

Train staff to be winners, not whiners—A thriving practice is like a well-oiled machine—every member of the team must perform at their best. Having a straightforward training program helps employees understand what is expected of them. Imparting knowledge about how a well-run practice should function teaches staff to best use of their skills.

Set goals and reward your top performers—Establishing a clear vision of your values as a dental professional goes a long way toward inspiring those around you. Few people are born leaders, but almost anyone can be a loyal team player. This is especially true if they know that their efforts are being valued in the form of competitive pay and benefits. Consider an Employee of the Month program to single out excellence, and offering year-end bonuses when benchmarks are achieved.

3. Ditch the insurance. Yes, really.
Just as health care coverage is a perpetual political football and socio-economic debate, the merits (or lack thereof) of dental insurance and managed care programs continue to roil the industry. Surveys by the ADA, 3M Dental Products, and others show that a large percentage of dentists are highly dissatisfied with the business practices of PPOs, DMOs, and dental insurance in general. They feel fee schedules are unrealistically low and that managed care can deny patients the best course of treatment. Consequently, most say they are tempted to focus more on “fee-for-service” patients. A growing number have already dropped insurance acceptance, and recent data show the trend is building momentum.

Dentists who have made the transition successfully often say it was the best decision of their careers. Yet, the fear of a negative financial impact due to the loss of patients to other practices still accepting insurance is a valid concern. Can these factors be minimized to make moving to mostly or 100% fee-for-service possible? Yes.

Weed out the worst first—Not all insurance is equal. As the largest dental insurance plan in the nation with 54,000,000 participants, Delta Dental attracts the most attention from the industry and perhaps the most scorn from dentists. Obviously, they can potentially steer the most patients your way. You already know which insurance providers you least enjoy dealing with, have the most onerous policies, or the poorest payouts. Consider dropping the least profitable of the plans you accept and phasing out insurance over time. This will give you time to manage patient attrition and gauge the effect while moving toward a fee-for-service business.

Give patients fair warning—Before making any changes to your acceptance policy, consider having brief conversations with your patients during their visits. Listen to their thoughts and explain your reasoning. Make it clear that you still intend to help them gain the best services their plan will allow, just short of being paid by anyone but them. A letter or email to those using insurance will prepare them for the change and help win their continued loyalty.

Ramp up marketing and your profile—If ever there was a good opportunity to take stock of your advertising and community outreach efforts, this is it. Increase new patient specials to mitigate any loss of clients. Look for local speaking opportunities and public events that put you in front of prospective patients. You may have noticed that it’s rare for dental practice marketing to mention insurance. That’s because the immediate goal of marketing is to create awareness of your practice, communicate your quality of care, and entice patients to call or visit your office or website.

Help patients with insurance claims—Patients who stay with your practice are a testament to your quality of care and chairside manner. Instruct your billing department to provide any assistance patients need to fill out their insurance paperwork for the most efficient reimbursement possible. They’ll appreciate this courtesy and be less likely to leave you.

Analyze your finances and plan for some attrition—Take a close look at your vendor credit lines, outstanding loans, and any other debt, both personal and business. Are there steps you can take to reduce interest rates or pay down your accounts? Review your savings, IRAs, 401(k), and investment vehicles that could be helpful should belt tightening be necessary. Meet with your CPA and financial advisor to inform them of your plans.

As we noted, ensuring the success and profitability of today’s dental practice is unquestionably different and more complex than in the past. Corporate dentistry has changed the landscape of dentistry. Single proprietor or family-run practices must meet the price competitiveness and marketing prowess of sophisticated, centrally managed, multi-location DSOs. For decades the insurance industry has been slowly putting downward pressure on margins as fee schedules are set without regard for high labor and materials costs. More than ever dentists must be dedicated to running their practices as an entrepreneurial endeavor.

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Timothy McNeely is CEO of The LifeStone Companies and works with a limited number of entrepreneurial dentists for whom he can have a major impact. Using a consultative approach, he helps practice owners make smart decisions about their money. Tim’s interest in financial consulting with dentists grew from meeting his wife, Dana Yeoman, DDS. Tim saw that his extensive experience as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) could help transform his wife’s practice into a more fiscally sound, high performing, and personally rewarding professional life. He has since helped hundreds of busy dentists and entrepreneurs make informed decisions about their money. Ask him anything at For a free copy of his white paper, "A Modern Approach for Practice Management,” email [email protected].