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The private practice edge: What you can offer your patients that keeps them coming back

April 7, 2022
"You are not at the whim of insurance companies": Despite the challenges private practices face, dentists have great opportunities if they know where to look.

Doctor and Doll, one of Norman Rockwell’s most enduring paintings, cast an evocative spell on readers of the Saturday Evening Post when it debuted on the cover on March 9, 1929. The kindly depiction of a family doctor checking the heartbeat of a young girl’s doll represents a heartwarming glimpse of the trusting bond between doctor and patient. Few artistic visionaries could have encapsulated it better.

Sadly, within the last 30 years, the relationship between doctor and patient has faded to a mere shadow of its former significance. It’s hardly a secret that the insurance field now plays a dominant role in the discussion of medical treatments. Conversations that once took place exclusively between patient and care provider now include a host of middlemen, most of whom know next to nothing about the medical profession. Instead, their focus remains squarely fixated upon revenue growth for shareholders.

As for dentists along Main Street, they’ve generally remained shielded from the influence of Wall Street and its pack of insurance conglomerates. While dental insurance plays an expanding role in the operations of most private practitioners, conversations about treatments still largely stay between doctor and patient. However, shifts in the business landscape now occur faster than ever before, and oftentimes without warning. Corporate preferences have given rise to efficiently run dental service organizations (DSOs) that fiercely compete for the same customers as established private practitioners, putting many independent dentists on edge.

Are you ready for the good news?

There is plenty of room for both business models to coexist. Each one offers unique advantages that appeal to the wide variety of needs inherent in all patients. If you’re a private practice dentist, however, you cannot afford to become complacent. A host of emerging technologies and tools are at your disposal to help you remain competitive and attractive in the eyes of a customer base whose preferences seem to shift with each new iPhone release.

Also by the author: Invest in your "why"

The challenges of both owning and operating a brick-and-mortar practice, while numerous and ever-changing, can simultaneously be what sets you apart from the DSO model. As a private practice, your number one asset is the culture of your business. When you instinctively know how to properly welcome your patients and make them feel appreciated, they’ll stick with you. Having a definitive culture within your staff all but guarantees that any customer who walks through your door remains a loyal patient. The trick is getting them to first step foot inside your office.

When potential patients call to schedule an appointment, it’s showtime. Everyone’s goal should be to acquire them, regardless of their concerns about insurance, payment plans, or scheduling issues. Of course, it doesn’t always happen. Even the most well-meaning receptionists let customers slip through the cracks. If patient acquisition remains a sticking point for your office, know that you have resources that can help. Coaching from a phone training specialist can often yield surprising results. Additionally, there is now a firm that uses artificial intelligence to monitor incoming calls and give feedback to receptionists when potential appointments go unmade. This emerging technology can provide valuable insight on how to effectively call back those same customers and win both their confidence and willingness to become new patients.

Amol Nirgudkar, CEO of Patient Prism, stands at the helm of this cutting-edge science. He explains, “We enable dental practices to quickly understand the conversational nuance that resulted in an unscheduled appointment and provide complete visual feedback along with instant training on how to win back the patient, all within 15 minutes of the call.”

You are not at the whim of insurance companies

Of course, successfully growing your customer base often ushers in another challenge: managing multiple insurers. One distinct advantage of DSOs is their innate ability to negotiate rates across the board. You’ll be glad to know, however, that as a private dentist, you are not necessarily beholden to the whims and wishes of the insurance companies. With the right tools, you can also reap your fair share of payments for services rendered. The last model any private practice should fall back on is a Groupon-like system whereby equitable payments are sacrificed in return for the illusory promise of an increase in clientele.

Fortunately, firms now exist to represent your interests when it comes to partnering with various insurers. “It is a common misconception that DSOs have the most lucrative PPO fee schedules,” says Patrick O’Rourke, founder and CEO of Practice Quotient, a company that specializes in bridging the gap between independent dentists and insurance agencies. “Each dental insurance carrier has their own distinct criteria for identifying key providers, assessing value and necessity for that provider to participate in their network.”

You have an opportunity to sell dental products

Receiving adequate payment for services rendered is an obvious goal, but it shouldn’t be your only one. An often-overlooked benefit of owning your own storefront is your explicit ability to sell. While treating patients is every dentist’s top priority, more and more are catching on to the benefits of providing products to eager customers. Beauty salons have long since taken advantage of this logical market. People who spend a lot of money on their hair appointments also pay generous sums to maintain their hairstyles, and they willingly turn to experts to learn which products to buy.

It’s no different when it comes to dentistry. Your patients are naturally invested in their oral hygiene, or they wouldn’t be your patients. If you provide a line of products in your office, specifically ones that you can stand by, you’re going to make additional sales that ultimately improve your bottom line.

“To increase production, you have to increase your standard of care,” says Dr. Robert Martino, CEO of OraCare, a leading dental supplier of oral hygiene products. “OraCare does that. It is great for your patient and can be profitable [for] the office.”

Where technology comes in

If lasting success as an independent dentist were to hinge on one word, it would be optimization. The core of the DSO model revolves around it. Thankfully, so can yours. As a private practitioner, technology has your back. With the right platforms in place, you can streamline every office function from insurance validation to payroll and human resources. Economies of scale, once the privilege of consortiums, are now accessible to sole proprietors who know where to find them. The key is in making use of well-established cloud-based systems that, once put in place, not only can drive down your overhead costs, but increase revenue at the same time. And unlike the DSOs, you can have it all while maintaining full ownership of your practice.

Understanding your value

Alex Sadusky, CEO of TruBlu Dental Management, describes the influence his business can have on yours: “We believe very strongly in the preservation of private practice and making sure that every dentist is the best businessperson he or she can be with the most opportunities to grow their practice into the one of their dreams. One thing we know is that every dentist and team member needs to understand the true value of what they are doing to impact the lives of their patients every day. When every team member understands that he or she doesn’t just work in a dental practice but also works in a business, great things can happen.”

The multiple facets of dentistry

Any dentist determined to maintain a private practice within this ever-evolving climate undoubtedly has what it takes to succeed, and more importantly, to reap the tremendous rewards from their success. However, it can’t go unmentioned that even the most highly skilled dentists have spent 95% of their education learning solely about the practice of clinical dentistry. In other words, scant attention has been paid to the business side of running an office. Private practice dentists are forced to wear multiple hats if they want to maintain their relevance. Being a skilled dentist only makes up a third of the equation. Understanding business systems and exhibiting business acumen accounts for another third. The final piece of the puzzle is mastering communication and leadership.

If the business side of practice ownership overwhelms you at times, you’re not alone. You should be proud of your ambition, not afraid of it. Furthermore, you owe it to yourself to seek guidance whenever needed. Expert coaches in the management world can provide immediate insight into making your practice flourish. I advise my clients to seek out a “Class 3 Experience.” In doing so, you have three main areas of focus: what’s good for the patient, what’s good for the practice, and what’s good for the profession. Having a coach on your side enables you to operate with astonishing clarity. For many private practitioners, it’s the most transformative investment they’ll make in their career.

Bernie Stoltz, CEO of Fortune Management, an industry leader in dental management consulting, sums up the goal succinctly: “Our commitment to each client we serve is to support them on a path to financial freedom.”

Preserving the doctor-patient relationship

As an independent dentist in a corporatized landscape, you play an important part in preserving the cherished and time-honored relationship between doctor and patient. Not only do you deserve your place at the table, but you’re worthy of all the tools and assistance that will keep you thriving. I’ve seen inside the hearts of the dentists who frequently come to me for guidance. Like you, their greatest joy comes from helping the people they proudly serve. I’m simply here to remind you all that the critical role you play as private practitioners should also lead you to lasting prosperity.  

Editor's note: This article appeared in the April 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.

About the Author

Mark B. Murphy

Mark B. Murphy, CEO of Northeast Private Client Group, is an accomplished author, speaker, and motivator who's revolutionizing the financial planning and wealth management industry. He helps entrepreneurs achieve multigenerational wealth through personalized strategies, leveraging his strategic planning and financial engineering expertise. Forbes has ranked him as the number one financial security professional in New Jersey and number 15 nationwide. Additionally, his book, The Ultimate Investment, is a number one bestseller and new release on Amazon.

Disclosure: Registered Representative and Financial Advisor of Park Avenue Securities LLC (PAS). OSJ: 200 Broadhollow Road, Suite 405, Melville, NY 11747, 631-589-5400. Securities products and advisory services offered through PAS, member FINRA, SIPC. Financial Representative of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America® (Guardian), New York, NY. PAS is a wholly owned subsidiary of Guardian. Northeast Private Client Group is not an affiliate or subsidiary of PAS or Guardian. CA Insurance License #0B36048, AR Insurance License #741545. (Pinpoint: 2023-156598. Exp 06/2025)

Material discussed is meant for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as tax, legal, or investment advice. Although the information has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, please note that individual situations can vary. Therefore, the information should be relied upon only when coordinated with individual professional advice. By providing this content Park Avenue Securities LLC and your financial representative are not undertaking to provide investment advice or make a recommendation for a specific individual or situation, or to otherwise act in a fiduciary capacity

Updated June 9, 2023

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