Answering the where questions

May 1, 1996
Until quite recently, dental offices have not been able to use computer mapping to assist in strategic planning or marketing. The technology was expensive and complex. Today, because of a dramatic drop in the cost of computer-mapping software, maps and data plus a significant increase in the power and data-storage capabilities of desktop computers, dental offices now can perform a variety of geographic analyses that could previously only be undertaken by large corporations.

Geographic analysis will help you make important decisions concerning your practice.

James M. Sponzo, MBA

Until quite recently, dental offices have not been able to use computer mapping to assist in strategic planning or marketing. The technology was expensive and complex. Today, because of a dramatic drop in the cost of computer-mapping software, maps and data plus a significant increase in the power and data-storage capabilities of desktop computers, dental offices now can perform a variety of geographic analyses that could previously only be undertaken by large corporations.

With an increase in competition and the development of managed care networks by insurance companies, it is imperative for survival that solo and group-independent practitioners make use of data visualization technology when making important decisions concerning the location, size and mix of services of their practices or whether to join a provider network. You can either purchase the software, maps and data and learn how to perform the analyses yourself or you can contract with consultants or companies that specialize in geographic analysis and mapping services.

The Need For An Analysis

We`ve all heard the familiar proverb, "A picture is worth a thousand words." This is especially true when analyzing relationships among databases. It is immediately evident on a patient-distribution map that your patients may not be evenly dispersed around your office, but scattered within several distinct areas. This would not be so clear if one looked at a listing of patient addresses. Geographic analysis allows you to layer different types of information, one on top of the other as if you had one transparency that had map boundaries, another that had streets and landmarks, another that had the location of your patients and another that showed the location of other dental offices. You can add or delete layers depending upon the analysis. Geographic analysis, in addition to showing the geographic relationship of your data, also can calculate your service area based on distance or drive time from your practice or drawing a circle to encompass 90 percent of your patients. You can ask for area information, such as the names and addresses of patients within a certain distance of the office.

The dental practitioner can use geographic analysis to find an optimal site for a new practice, to determine the size of the facility and the number of operatories, evaluate an existing practice for sale, determine the location of a satellite office, evaluate the need for an associate or an additional hygienist, evaluate a change in services provided or develop a target marketing plan for the practice.

GIS and How It Works

A geographic information system (GIS) is composed of computer hardware, mapping software and data. Mapping software requires a powerful computer with a large storage capacity to use the mapping software. Desktop computers now are available that easily can perform the geographic analyses. Minimum requirements for most mapping software are a 486 or Pentium processor, 8 MB of RAM and at least 100MB hard disk drive. It is suggested that you use a color printer for thematic mapping. There are several companies that produce PC and Windows-based mapping software that can perform the geographic analyses mentioned in this article. The mapping software comes with tutorials and sample maps and databases. The software is about as easy to learn as learning how to use popular word processing, spreadsheet or database software. To analyze your dental practice, you will need to have a digital map of the area surrounding your practice that includes streets, landmarks and boundaries.

Also, you may need data. The mapping companies supply the maps and a variety of data sets, including information based on the 1990 U.S. Census and adjusted forward to the current year. They also include projections out to 10 years and can provide psychographic information. This information divides the population into over 50 different consumer groups such as "senior affluents" and "suburban professionals." It has been determined that each group has certain buying patterns. The data can be provided at various levels of detail from state and county to postal ZIP-codes and U.S. Census tracts or block groups. It is important that you clearly define the type of analysis you want to perform and the expected results before purchasing any maps or data.

Your own internal, patient-care information is another source of data available for mapping. Each patient address can be pinpointed on a map. This way you are able to see the distribution of your patients and determine your service area. To use patient-address information, you need to geo-code each address. In geo-coding the computer-mapping software assigns latitude and longitude coordinates to each address, allowing a symbol to be placed on the map at the precise address location.

To perform a geographic analysis, you use the computer-mapping software to create the map. Each layer of data is added in the order of significance, first boundaries, then streets and landmarks, dental-office locations and patient addresses. There are a variety of options for the type of map such as range maps, graduated symbol maps and dot density maps. You can add text, symbols and objects, as needed, in any color or style. The options are almost limitless. Once the maps have been constructed, you can print them in either black and white or color, to any size.


Where should I locate my practice? For the dentist who is ready to open a practice, the choice of where to locate the practice is a fundamental consideration that may well make the difference between success and failure. Whether constructing a new facility or purchasing an existing practice, it is important that you carefully analyze and evaluate your service area just as large retail outlets do in selecting locations for their businesses.

First of all, it`s important to know or estimate what your service area will be. If you are purchasing a practice, ask for a patient list by address. You can then produce a map of patient distribution. This will show you whether the patients are clustered near the office or are spread over a wide geographic area. Once the service area is determined, you can evaluate the Census information for the area.

Look at the population characteristics. Look at trends. What categories of the population are likely to use your services? Do the existing patients match the population characteristics? Is there likely to be a major change in the composition of the community in the future? You can perform a psychographic analysis looking at the various lifestyle groups within your service area. Are these lifestyle groups most likely to use your services? Look at your competition for patients. Where are the competing facilities? What is the dentist-to-population ratio for the area?

By performing geographic analysis and visualizing the data, you will be better informed as to whether the location you are interested in will optimize your chances for success. The analysis might, in fact, show you that there are some other areas in the community that are currently underserved or areas where the population characteristics are changing in a manner that would be beneficial to your practice.

Locating Pediatric Patients

For many dentists, there is a need to know where the patient population is located that is most likely to use their services. If you are restricting your practice to pediatric dentistry, you need to find locations where there are high concentrations of children. You also may want to find locations by average family income or education levels of heads of households. You may want to look for areas that have a low ratio of pediatric dentists to the population you will be serving.

How do you put all this information together to show you where are the best locations for the practice? Geographic analysis will give you a bird`s-eye view of your surroundings, showing you those locations that are most promising.

To prepare the analysis, you acquire the digital street maps, boundary files and U.S. Census data from the computer-mapping-software company. You get a list giving the names and addresses of pediatric dentists in the area. Dental associations and private data companies can supply this information. You also can get the information from a telephone directory and geo-code the addresses.

Once you have the data, you next determine the type of map best suited to your analysis. It may be a thematic map with different colors for each range of information or a dot density map where each dot represents so many units, such as one dot represents 50 persons. In this particular example, the pediatric dentist has decided to use a thematic map with four, different range colors showing high, above average, below average and low ranges for U.S. Census data related to family income and education, and a dot density map for the population by age group that is most likely to use your services. The dentist has also decided to use Census tract area boundaries. The map will be composed of layers of information with the bottom layer having the boundaries, the next layer having a thematic representation of income and education, the next layer being a dot density representation of the targeted population group and the top layer containing the point location of all pediatric-dentistry offices. The resultant map will then allow you to see the relationships among the various layers of data and determine which areas are optimal for your practice. If there is too much information on the map, you can simplify things by turning off one or more of the layers.

Where Is My Target Market?

Marketing of dental services using direct-mail advertisements and information to attract new patients to the office is often done without precision, resulting in sending advertisements to individuals or groups that are not likely to use your services. You can increase your chances for success if you target those population groups that regularly use dental services or that have the income potential to pay for the services that you will be providing. As an example, if you are wanting to expand the number of patients who come to your office for cosmetic-dentistry services, you need to inform your target market of the benefits of cosmetic dentistry and the specific services you provide.

To begin your analysis, you need to determine your service area by plotting the distribution of your existing patients. This is the area where you are most likely to attract new patients.

You, then, need to define your target market in terms of population characteristics such as sex, age and income. In this example, the dentist has decided to target females with above-average income and education who are older than 40 years. Using your computer-mapping software, U.S. Census tract boundaries and U.S. Census data, you can produce a thematic map for your service area, showing those census tracts within your service area that have the highest target-market populations.

The next step is to acquire a mailing list for each of the targeted census tracts from a direct-mail company. As a result, you will have increased the likelihood of getting your message to the right people while significantly reducing advertising costs.


Geographic analysis is an important new technology that you should consider when making the big decisions concerning your practice. You need access to the information that other dental practices have to be competitive and you need to be able to see relationships in the data that provide you with an opportunity for success in your practice.

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