Dr. Bryan Laskin, SVP of Innovation, Dental Care Alliance
The dental industry is currently in a period of massive change will that lead to better care. While many think that dentistry has already improved over the last couple of decades, most dental offices are using technology and systems that are several decades old. A combination of factors, including the rise of a group practice, increasing costs associated with delivering dental care, the dramatic shift to social proof for validation and transformative, innovative technologies will completely change the way people deliver and receive dental care.
According to Dr. Marc Cooper, president and founder of the Dentist Entrepreneur Organization, dentists practicing in solo practices had diminished from over 80 percent of dentists in 2016 to about 55 percent in 2018, and the percentage is dropping about seven percent per year. While there will always be a place for solo practices in dentistry, the advantages of delivering care in Dental Support Organizations (DSO’s) make it likely for this trend to continue, or even accelerate. DSO’s have entire teams focused on the business aspects of dental care, such as marketing, HR, payroll and enhancing patients’ experiences. Additionally, the sheer size of DSO’s allows them to leverage their volume to achieve better pricing on materials, equipment, and staffing.
The pricing advantages that are inherent in the DSO model gives DSO’s an increasing benefit over time, as the cost to deliver care escalates. Led by the lack of increase in dental benefit reimbursements for both patients and practices, and exponentially rising staffing costs, dentistry is getting more expensive to provide each year. What is commonly but inaccurately referred to as “dental insurance,” actually is a benefit that employers buy for their employees? While the premiums for dental benefits have escalated over the last few decades, the amount that dental “insurance” companies will pay on behalf of the patient has stayed stagnant. Factoring in any incremental cost of living percentage at all, you find that dental benefits have plummeted. Similarly, the amount that is reimbursed to dental offices has likewise dropped. It has squeezed providers and patients alike.
Whereas historically it was quite uncommon for dentists to spend money on marketing (and even was not allowed until relatively recently), today it has become a necessity for an even moderately successful practice. DSO’s are much better prepared to thrive in a marketplace that requires marketing and the delivery of efficient care, not just because of their marketing expertise, but also because of their capacity to focus on adequately training auxiliary team members. With the extra training possibilities, team members learn the importance of improving patient experiences which, unfortunately, often falls under the category of marketing in many practices (vs. the quality of care).
"The pricing advantages that are inherent in the DSO model gives DSO’s an increasing benefit over time, as the cost to deliver care escalates"
The reason why the patient experience falls into marketing for most practices is that clinical quality in the field of dentistry tends to be associated with details that directly pertain to the projected longevity of the care that is delivered. For example, if restoration does not adequately fit the tooth surface, the resulting leakage can lead to decay and the ultimate failure of the restoration. However, as dentistry is rapidly becoming more predictable and easier to perform the variation in clinical quality of care is narrowing. As this persists, patients, who already are not equipped to judge the quality of their dental care adequately, will perceive even fewer differences between dentists’ clinical quality of care. Therefore, the experience that patients receive in dental care has become a crucial component to the success or failure of any dental practice.
The explosion of social media and mobile devices adds velocity to this change, as patients are “talking” about their dental experiences with much more frequency and in new ways that are more immediate than ever before. Less than a decade ago it would be quite outside the social norm to advertise dental or medical experiences for others to see, but it now commonplace. In particular, negative experiences are communicated more frequently and are viewed as an accepted avenue to voice the patient’s complaints. This phenomenon has lead to the closing of many dental offices. In some cases, it can even be people who have never even been to the office but have issues with someone who works at the office, so negative reviews are posted.
While publication of fake negative reviews is a dark side of technology that has recently come into dentistry, there are many examples of the profoundly positive, transformative effects of technology in dentistry. The center of this positive technological transformation centers around the most commonly hated portion of dental care-the patient’s clinical experience. Technologies like CAD/CAM, CT imaging and 3D printing have completely revolutionized the way we receive and deliver care in a way that simultaneously increases quality and decreases anxiety. The quintessential example of elevating the dental patient experience is leveraging the immersive effects of Virtual Reality to “send the patient” somewhere else while they have dental care. The proven drug-free sedation, replaces the negative sights and sounds of the dental operatory with calming beach or nature scenes, literally transporting people’s awareness in a way that has proven to reduce pain and anxiety up to 60 percent.
So, dental care as we know it is changing fast. While change often leads to fear, this change is necessary to reduce the fear that is all to commonly associated dentistry. Up to now, dentistry has improved primarily to help dentists and dental teams deliver consistent, quality care. This was, and will always be a necessary, noble pursuit. Moving beyond the quality of clinical care is imperative; however, to get people with dental anxiety into dental offices. For this reason, dentistry will finally modernize over the next decade, leading to a positive metamorphosis of dental patient experience.