The Territorial Imperative

Case Profile: Out of the blue, there`s stiff competition for patients in this town of 20,000 people on the Jersey shore. And, after more than two decades in practice, our doctor`s beginning to feel like a beached whale, with little hope of survival. In desperation, he called me in for rescue operations.

Sally McKenzie, CMC

Case Profile: Out of the blue, there`s stiff competition for patients in this town of 20,000 people on the Jersey shore. And, after more than two decades in practice, our doctor`s beginning to feel like a beached whale, with little hope of survival. In desperation, he called me in for rescue operations.

Symptoms: Since 1995, this practice went from having a full-time hygienist to no hygienist, with the doctor himself doing prophys.

Observations: Losses in productivity are even outpacing the departure of active patients. Clinical and office staff are uneasy about the future, and resentful that the doctor is passively allowing the practice to be washed away. The office manager reports that she`s tried to persuade Dr. Passive to "market" the practice like the other dentists. She even keeps an idea file of practice brochures and ads that have come her way via concerned friends and relatives; to no avail.

Discussion: In the last four years, three rookie dentists have moved to town. One by one, they opened offices too close for comfort. Now, with seven practices instead of four vying for the town`s 20,000 people, the fair share has fallen from 2,500 patients each to just over 1,400 (figures reflect 10,000 patients, or 50 percent of the population who see a dentist). Thanks to Dr. Passive`s inertia, he`s not even holding onto his fair share, as his patient base has dropped to about 1,100. With enthusiasm and marketing savvy on their side, the new dentists lost no time in establishing an "image" of expertise and professionalism in a hi-tech setting. The bait was snapped up, giving the rookies more than their fair share of fish in the sea. While the new guys are happily in the swim, it`s ebb tide for our doctor.

Can "marketing" - or the absence of it - have had such a profound effect on this practice? Not in and of itself, but image can. The harsh reality is that patient perception has as much to do with "window dressing" as with dental skills. From the business card to the sign outside, the amateurish clip art of a smiley-faced tooth, is a throwback to years gone by. Look around at the furnishings - brown chairs and burnt-orange shag carpeting - strictly `70s. Without even knowing why, patients are turned off. Subconsciously, they must think that the clinical equipment is just as antiquated ... the kind of place one might go for a toothache, but not for a crown and bridge or implants.

Treatment Plan: For clinical growth of this practice, I recommended the purchase and skillful use of an intraoral camera, combined with a commitment to "selling" treatment plans. If patients aren`t offered the best that dentistry has to offer, they won`t opt for it themselves. Next, I recommended a dental-marketing consultant to come in and establish a practice identity package to include a logo, business card, stationery, and practice brochure. All of these should be developed to convey a contemporary, upscale image. In addition, the practice brochure should focus on both the dentist`s background and special area(s) of expertise. While it educates patients and their families, it must establish a bond between doctor and patient. Lastly, the office furnishings need to be updated, to give the impression that this practice offers the right blend of technology and care.

Sally Says: Remember that the way a practice is perceived determines how it is received. Some say that image is everything. They`re not entirely wrong.

Sally McKenzie, a Certified Management Consultant, has worked in every aspect of dentistry for 32 years. She has lectured at the nation`s top dental meetings, and consulted in dental practices in over 30 states and Canada. Sally can be reached at (877) 777-6151, e-mail to sallymck@mckenziemgmt.com or check out her Web site at www.mckenziemgmt.com.

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