Chicago Midwinter 2017: 3 drivers of practice growth and success

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Is your practice growing organically, or does it seem like you're always on the hunt for new patients? In a talk at the recent 2017 Chicago Dental Society Midwinter Meeting, Mark Murphy, DDS, described three critical measurements every practice needs to measure growth and success.

Because dental industry trends aren't favoring practice growth, dentists have to be better at business to make the same profits they did even 10 years ago, according to Dr. Murphy, who is the owner of Funktional Consulting, an online tracking program that monitors practice metrics. He is also the lead clinical faculty for MicroDental Laboratories and visiting faculty and advisor to the board of directors for the Pankey Institute.

One of the changes most affecting the business side of dentistry is that insurance reimbursement rates have not kept up with inflation, Dr. Murphy noted. As a result, dentists lose money over time.

"We've lost 20% in the past 10 years," he said during the well-attended session at the conference. "When it happens at 2% a year, we don't notice."

However, falling reimbursement rates aren't the only challenge facing dental practices. Consumer dental spending may be stagnating, dentists are retiring later, and there are more students graduating from dental school than ever before. Measuring practice drivers is the key to making up for the difference caused by these wider changes, according to Dr. Murphy.

"If I can put one more crown in your schedule and two more cleanings each week ... that's about $50 per hour in production increase. $50 an hour is the freedom to make choices," Dr. Murphy said. "I want you to help your patients get better health. I want you to do work that's more fulfilling. And I want to help you make more money."

To accomplish those goals, practices need to keep existing patients, increase case acceptance, and find new patients through referrals, he said.

1. Keep existing patients

One of the largest drivers of practice growth is simply keeping existing patients, which is often less expensive than finding new clients, according to Dr. Murphy.

To measure retention, he recommended counting how many patients leave your office with a hygiene appointment. Dr. Murphy suggested dividing a piece of paper into 10 rows and columns, and placing a checkmark in each box for how many of your last 100 patients have a scheduled hygiene appointment. In the average practice, about 70% of patients have a hygiene appointment scheduled, but the gold standard is 90%, he noted.

"That 20% change is 16 patients. At $100 to $200 per appointment, that's $75,000 per year," he said.

Dr. Murphy acknowledged some patients may be resistant to making hygiene appointments months ahead of time because of their hectic schedules, but he urged practices to try and get those patients to schedule an appointment, because many will end up planning around it.

In addition, when Dr. Murphy practiced, he noticed fewer patients canceled their appointment when his staff mentioned the hygienist's name in the reminder call. He also recommended keeping notes of topics to talk about with patients during appointments and celebrating big life moments as ways to keep patients coming back year after year.

2. Increase case acceptance

Dental procedures can be costly for patients, even for those with dental insurance. As a result, most practices have a case acceptance rate of only about 50%, according to Dr. Murphy. To increase that number, he recommended getting the patient to see the procedure as a want versus a need.

“People make decisions to pay money for what they value.”
— Mark Murphy, DDS

"People make decisions to pay money for what they value," he said. "The problem isn't that they don't value dentistry. It's that we've never taught them to value dentistry."

The first step is to get the patient to realize there is a problem that needs to be fixed, Dr. Murphy said. Having patients look at images from an intraoral camera or in the mirror is a good way for them to see what is wrong.

Then, explain the value proposition of getting treatment, since most patients won't know. He used the analogy of having to explain to someone who doesn't wear suits what the difference between a top-notch suit at Nordstrom is like versus one from a bargain store.

"Keep track of any time you told a patient they needed dentistry done, and it was more than what was covered by insurance," he said. "You've got to keep track, so you can tell what moves the needle."

When cost is the issue, Dr. Murphy recommended setting up a payment plan, noting that many patients won't spend thousands of dollars on anything, but they will be more inclined to pay a couple of hundred dollars every month. And if all else fails, he half-jokingly said to simply mention the word "root canal," because that will get patients to sit up in the seat and listen.

3. Find new patients through referrals

While most practices have a patient retention problem, some practices really do need new patients. Dr. Murphy found that asking about 10% of patients he really liked if they could refer friends and family to him helped bring in quality new patients.

"The single biggest driver is: 'Becky, can I ask you something? I like to work on people like you, so if you happen to know somebody, can you do me a favor and give them my card?'" Dr. Murphy said. "Patients were flattered, and dentists get new patients.'

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