Leading the modern dental practice

June 25, 2013
For the dental practice, success in the postrecession economy demands more than excellent clinical skills. The dentist must also be an effective business leader ...

by Roger P. Levin, DDS


For the dental practice, success in the postrecession economy demands more than excellent clinical skills. The dentist must also be an effective business leader, capable of reaching certain basic targets. These include:

  • Increasing production 15% or more each year
  • Having 98% of all patients scheduled at all times
  • Achieving a 90% acceptance rate on presented treatment
  • Collecting 99% of all money owed to the practice

Setting and attaining targets such as these has become critical. According to the Levin Group Data Center™*, 75% of all dental practices have declined during the past four years. Dental practice owners should take warning from this and begin thinking and behaving like CEOs. Otherwise, they will be trapped in a pattern of flat or declining production, excessive stress, and delayed retirement.

The Dentist as CEO

Unlike the typical CEO, dentists do not have the luxury of business school courses, corporate experience, or the guidance of mentors. Yet they need to meet and adapt to significant operational challenges if they are to succeed in today’s dental economy.

In other businesses, CEOs use management systems to grow and protect their companies. Dentists must now learn to do the same. By applying the best methods from the business world, dentists can consistently grow their practices. When step-by-step systems are implemented to achieve specific targets, dental practices can be highly successful despite the challenges of a sluggish economy. The new role of a dentist is to be both clinician and CEO.

The main focus, day-by-day in the practice, will naturally continue to be on providing excellent patient care, but this alone is not sufficient. Dedication to the dental profession no longer guarantees a successful practice. In today’s world, practice owners must create effective management and marketing systems and regularly monitor their progress.

What Got You This Far Will Not Take You to Your Goal

Reaching production, income, and profit targets in one year does not mean that it will happen again. For example, a practice that grew 12% last year may…

  • Grow by half that rate -- 6% -- next year
  • Find itself on a plateau, with no growth
  • Actually decline by 5% or more

All of these scenarios are not only possible, but today’s economy makes them more likely. The only way for a practice to achieve positive growth is by implementing proven, step-by-step business systems. Outdated methods and policies will not get the job done. Just as clinical techniques evolve to improve patient care, management and marketing protocols must also change or the practice will stagnate.

Leadership Requires Innovation

Dentists are thoroughly familiar with the importance of innovation as it relates to clinical excellence. They are not, however, experienced in the area of innovative business solutions. As former chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble, A.G. Lafley points out in a book he coauthored with Ram Charan, The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, “The best way to win in this world is through innovation…. Innovation must be the central driving force for any business that wants to grow and succeed in both the short and long terms.” Management and marketing innovations have become critical factors in practice success and should therefore be addressed forthrightly by practice owners.

Business CEOs understand that innovation is an ongoing process that impacts management, marketing, team building, and planning. Some dental practices have been tremendously successful, even in the face of great challenges, because they have implemented innovative strategies. These include patient acquisition strategies such as certificates for no-cost exams, motivating insurance patients to accept more elective procedures, and other innovations.

In response to changes in the dental economy, Levin Group has created new systems for its clients based on the following innovative principles:

• Practices need to do more with what they already have. Currently, dental practices have fewer new patients presenting than at any other time in recent history. This means that practices have to do more with the patients who are already in their care. Practices can accomplish this by:

-- Having 98% of all patients scheduled at all times

-- Reactivating 85% of all overdue patients who haven’t been seen in the last 18 to 48 months

-- Offering ideal and comprehensive treatment, with 90% of cases accepted

If these three targets alone are consistently achieved, practice production will increase significantly. Combine these with other key concepts and the practice has the potential to grow exponentially.

• Training matters more than ever. The dental team will be only as good as the practice’s business systems. Conversely, for those systems to work well, the team must receive appropriate training. If training is haphazard, high expectations are unrealistic.

One of the most important responsibilities for the practice CEO is to arrange for team training. By implementing proper training in the use of documented step-by-step systems, the practice will have a team that excels in every area, from scheduling to case presentation. This training should include innovations such as learning system operation through scripted role-playing, assigning target accountability as a motivational tool, and extensive cross-training.

• All dental practices have a 30% growth potential. Dentists can achieve this growth rate without any new fixed expenses. A practice does not need to add a new chair, staff member, or technology to achieve 30% or more in growth -- and if the practice can grow 30% without increasing fixed expenses like these, it means that currently one full day per week, at minimum, is actually unnecessary. In a dental practice, as in all businesses, work expands to fill time. With a new Power Cell Schedule™ in place to eliminate costly gaps and imbalance, the “busy” practice will find that it has increased capacity to treat more patients. It can then use excellent marketing strategies to fill the available openings. This is the general framework for growing a practice.

• Patients today want more value for their money. Most dentists do not have an accurate understanding of the patient experience. In one study by the Levin Group Data Center™, it was found that dentists and staff rated their customer service at 9.2 out of 10. However, when patients were surveyed, they rated the customer service at 7.4 out of 10.

While this is not a bad score, it is also not at the level of excellence that builds loyalty and referrals. This lack of superior customer service is one reason why, in the typical practice, less than 20% of patients refer one new patient per year. In contrast, the target Levin Group sets for clients is for 40% to 60% of patients to refer one new patient each year.

Consumers (including dental patients) want more value today than ever before. Their financial situation is often challenging and uncertain, so they want the best value they can get every time they spend their money. They have been conditioned by retailers to seek discounts, deals, and other opportunities based on either lower cost or higher value. In response to this new consumer psychology, the best approach for dental practices is to increase value rather than reducing fees. They can do this with an intense focus on customer service, internal marketing, and strategic innovation. The goal should be for every practice to routinely score higher than 9 out of 10 on customer service surveys.


Superior clinical care is only part of the equation for practice success. The other part is expert business skills. In today’s economy, the practice leader needs to have both.

Dental school teaches dentists the clinical skills they need to become excellent dentists. In the new dental economy, practice success also depends on the leader’s business knowledge and skills. Whether dentists make the effort and spend the time learning the latest business techniques by themselves -- or rely on outside experts for guidance -- the objective is the same. Dentists must change with the times in order to operate the practice as a business. They must envision practice success in the future and lead the practice there.

* Levin Group Data Center™ houses proprietary data collected annually from thousands of dental practices worldwide.

To learn how to run a more profitable, efficient, and satisfying practice, visit the Levin Group Resource Center at www.levingroup.com/gp -- a free online resource with tips, videos, and other valuable information. You can also connect with Levin Group on Facebook and Twitter (Levin_Group) to learn strategies and share ideas.

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