Planning for Growth in the Post-Covid World

The Covid-19 virus has created the greatest disruption to daily life since World War II. Some have been affected directly, others indirectly; all of us are dealing with a pandemic of uncertainty. At some point in 2021, we are told that a combination of factors—the virus naturally running its course (perhaps through a measure of “herd immunity”), better therapeutics, and safe and effective vaccines—will finally put the pandemic behind us. 

To plan for growth in the post-Covid world, dental practices need to focus on the following:

1. New Patient Flow.

Always a key measure of practice success, this statistic has been greatly skewed by the lockdown and other restrictions imposed due to the virus. Practices were closed for weeks for all but emergency services. When they re-opened, they were kept very busy by pent-up demand. As that patient flow works its way through the pipeline, practices will need to redouble efforts to keep up a steady patient flow throughout 2021 and beyond. One of the most cost-effective ways to reach the public is through social media advertising. A practice does not have to advertise on multiple social media platforms, but it cannot afford to advertise on none. A professionally run online ad campaign coupled with savvy internal marketing will be required to fill dental chairs consistently.

2. Oral Health/General Health Connection.

The pandemic has raised the public’s awareness of dentistry as an integrated healthcare service, not something adjunctive to overall health. Patients understand one way to fight Covid-19, or any pathogen, is to start with a good health baseline and reduce or eliminate other disease processes. This message needs to be driven home at every opportunity. The professional literature abounds with examples of correlations between dental and systemic health, and I am often called upon to recast key points in language the lay public can understand. Patients also need to be reminded that dental offices have been on the forefront of strict infection control measures for decades; the pandemic raised those precautions to a new level. The takeaway message is that dental offices are not only conscientious about infection control safety, but that optimal dental health is part of overall health.

3. Straight Talk About Treatment Needs and Benefits.

There has been a tendency in some practices to ever-so-cautiously broach the subject to patients that they need extensive care and hope that patients will not find the conversation to be off-putting. While empathetic language and respect for the patient are of course paramount, practices need to move beyond the idealized image of the kindly family dentist of old, the venerable practitioner who gently chided about brushing and flossing and was content to occasionally drill and fill. Modern dentistry is exciting, complex, evidence-based, and life changing. Patients need to know all their options, the consequences of no treatment, and the benefits of availing themselves of all that modern dentistry has to offer. Successful practices will educate patients in a forthright manner; many patients will decide to take responsibility for their own health and accept recommendations.

4. Increased Production Per Patient.

Another key to ongoing practice success will be increasing production per patient. In the aftermath of the virus, it is neither practical nor time efficient for doctors to run from room to room. Treating patients comprehensively has always been a hallmark of the Seattle Study Club philosophy. Larger treatment plans are often appropriate in light of the aging population and the complexity of dental needs that are presenting in offices. The best doctors are both conservative and thorough in their treatment planning. When the schedule is less hectic, doctors utilize their abilities to the fullest to give patients optimal care, team members can give better customer service, and the atmosphere in the office is more akin to what it should be—customized patient care rather than large patient volume.

5. Increasing Lead Conversion.

One important parameter to track is the number of patients who call to ask a question about fees, hours, services or insurance, but do not schedule an appointment. Once this number has been isolated as a trackable metric, the practice can work on reducing it. Just one additional inquiry per month converted into an appointment can make a significant impact on the practice’s bottom line. The key to moving from an inquiry to an appointment is asking questions. When the team engages the potential patient in conversation and expresses interest in their story, there is a better chance the ongoing dialogue will engender trust and lead to an appointment. Team members need ongoing training to accomplish this goal.

6. Increasing Case Acceptance.

In addition, many practices benefit from increased attention to protocols and verbal skills for presenting treatment plans, handling objections, and instilling the confidence that propels patients to move forward with proposed care. No matter how many leads are generated through advertising or word of mouth, the true test of practice profitability comes when a patient understands the benefits of treatment and decides to schedule. The team needs to be totally prepared for each conversation. Patients will undoubtedly ask questions about how the treatment will address their dental issues, fees, insurance, potential discomfort, and long-term expectations of treatment success. These issues need to be reviewed as scripts or talking points in advance. When treatment coordinators are well versed in the talk track with patients, actual conversations go much more smoothly, and more patients proceed with treatment.

7. Patient Tracking and Follow Up.

Many patients leave dental offices promising to “think about” the treatment presented. The problem is that life intervenes, priorities change quickly, and the treatment plan that sounded so beneficial immediately begins to recede into the background. The sense of urgency is lost, and patients may take the procrastination path, which is always the path of least resistance. I always tell team members that doctors achieve predictable results in treatment rooms because they follow set protocols. When clearly delineated protocols are established for tasks such as tracking and communication with patients who have deferred treatment, a continual dialogue is established, questions are answered, objections are overcome, and more patients receive needed treatment. Protocols result in predictability.

8. Flexible Work Arrangements.

One lesson from the pandemic is that it is possible for many people to work from home very productively. Even before Covid-19, I noted that some practices had team members working from home, in some cases hundreds of miles from the office. These staff were typically employees who had a history with the practice, moved away for family reasons, but still provided valuable administrative services from afar. In the post-pandemic world, there will be more team members, even those who live in close proximity to the practice, who ask to work from home at least on some days. Whenever practical, these valuable employees should be accommodated. Look around you. Companies that previously leased a large amount of commercial space can now keep the same number of people employed with a smaller footprint. Not everyone who contributes to the success of a dental practice needs to be on site every day.

9. Team Training.

Over the last few years, software programs available to help all business run well, including dental practices, have proliferated. The irony is that while the software is often very sophisticated and can be a great timesaver, there is a need for continual training to master the software and use it to full advantage. Indeed, in most dental practices, only a fraction of the software capability is being used. The best managed dental offices invest in their teams to leverage their effectiveness through the astute use of technology.

10. Collaboration.

The solo practice model is fading away. There are more fee-for-service dentists who are practicing in group settings—which by definition can be as small as two doctors. The isolation inherent in solo practice is also breaking down due to the knowledge explosion and the need for professional collaboration. Seattle Study Club was ahead of its time in promoting collaborative care. As corporate dental models continue to proliferate, doctors will need to choose their practice model. However, whatever the business structure, there will be a need for strong professional relationships that foster the best patient care.

The post-Covid era is a chance to right the ship and steer it to smoother seas. The voyage will likely not be uneventful, but it will be under the command of dentists making good decisions for their patients.