How to Survive (and Thrive) as a Solo Practitioner in Dentistry

by Dr. Steven Ghim

Like most industries, dentistry is evolving rapidly. The field is now divided broadly into two categories of offices — corporate dentistry and solo practitioners. These two groups are similar in that the professionals all work to offer patients the proper dental services they need. In this sense, success for a solo practitioner is not entirely a proverbial David and Goliath situation. It’s simply that corporate dentistry has some advantages (e.g., the ability to be more flexible or offer more hours) that solo practitioners don’t, and solo practitioners must use different strengths to provide a unique patient experience. So, how can solo practitioners use their strengths to effectively position their practices in the midst of the ever-growing corporate dental model and thrive?

Going back to basics

Corporate dentists do a great job of handling a lot of patients across a lot of geographical locations. They can be profitable simply by keeping service numbers high. The downside to this chain-style approach, however, is that it’s harder to provide the individualized or unique care that many patients might appreciate.

So, by far the best way to up the odds of survival as a solo practitioner is to go back to the fundamentals. This means honing in on exceptional customer service, performing your service with true competency, and finding distinct strengths within your practice.

What does this look like in everyday work? One example might be highlighting a specific procedure or care category. If your cosmetic services are always getting rave reviews from your patients, for instance, then capitalize on that and advertise those services more proactively. People like to go to dentists they can trust as real experts, so embrace some degree of specialty and market where you’re truly most talented.

If you find that you really excel in one area and get a lot of enjoyment from it, then consider additional affiliations, licenses, or certifications in that subcategory that will help patients quantify what you know and are qualified for. This of course will depend on what’s available or required where you practice.

Another simple technique is to expand how or when you interact with your patients. For instance, corporate dentists might struggle to follow up with everyone, simply because of the higher number of patients they have and the increased emphasis on profit and loss. But as a solo practitioner who can focus more on fewer patients, you can make an enormously positive impression on those who come to you for care by calling them just to check in on their recovery. These kinds of gestures help patients feel more valued, and the feedback you gather also gives you a fantastic opportunity to head off complications or develop smarter operations to improve future care.

Lastly, think about the training you are doing. Supporting continuing education through classes and other resources ensures that your staff is up to date with new tools and standards. This allows them to provide service with more confidence and improves patient safety.

But there’s also enormous stress on efficiency, immediacy, and technology in the modern way of living and working. That’s caused some concern about how well people across industries can communicate, read each other, and connect. Dental staff are not necessarily going to come into your office understanding how to engage with customers in more personal, empathetic ways. So, it’s beneficial to look beyond traditional hard competencies and invest in building their soft skills.

Building soft skills is a multifaceted affair. On a surface level, build procedures or standards into your operations that make it easy for staff to work more directly with your patients. For example, something as simple as allowing a few extra minutes between appointments can give staff and patients more time to share information or ask questions. You also can establish some scripts for staff to use to encourage conversation with patients.

On a deeper level, train your staff about basic psychology so they can manipulate it in positive ways to learn what patients need and have an easier time quickly forming relationships. Stay aware of studies that can inform your interactions.

The trend toward customized care

In the age of Amazon, customers have gotten used to the idea of large-scale business where automation and fast delivery are the norms. Yet, at the same time, many of them are pushing back. They don’t want to be seen as just another patient or transaction, and they’re looking for providers to see them as real human beings that don’t always fit cookie-cutter expectations or needs. Many businesses are trying to respond with more customized products and services across the board.

As a dentist, choosing to open and maintain your own office can be daunting. The rate of decline for solo dental practices in 2018 was still high at 7 percent per year. And there are other legitimate concerns to going solo that push some dentists to the corporate side, such as huge startup costs and student loan debt.

But as people get overwhelmed with the impersonal, there’s a large section of customers who are clearly demanding “the little guy,” including in health care services. As a solo practitioner, you can recognize and take heart in this trend and meet this market demand well. Additionally, some data suggests that the rate of growth for corporate models will plateau between 20 and 25 percent of all practice modalities.

The key, perhaps, is to make sure that, even as you improve your fundamentals and treat customers like family, you also make an effort to follow corporate’s example of solid management systems. Strategies for good business can include:

  • Using a consulting firm to establish measurable systems with high staff accountability
  • Outsourcing areas like billing that can eat away at time or other resources
  • Seeking assistance in areas like SEO, website building, etc.
  • Studying trends and demographics in your region and striving for high visibility

In short, don’t try to do everything yourself. Think like a CEO, research, and let others handle specific business concerns where it makes sense so that you can do what you love and execute best — providing consistent, safe, and personal dental care to others. The combination of delegation and customization will ensure you stay in the best position possible for the industry.

About the Author

Dr. Steven Ghim is a cosmetic dentist who also provides general and comprehensive dental care. He has over 20 years of clinical experience. His private practice office is fully digital, ultra-modern, and serves the adult patient. Dr. Ghim has extensive training in dental veneers and other complex cosmetic dental procedures such as color matching. Those that are looking to receive exquisite, custom-made, and natural-looking veneers and smile transformations come to this office.

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