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Robert Elsenpeter is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Dental Products Report and Dental Lab Products. He is also the author of 18 technology books, including the award-winning Green IT: Reduce Your Information System's Environmental Impact While Adding to the Bottom Line. As such, he’s particularly interested in the technological side of dentistry.
One practitioner shares his experience with expanding to a group practice.
For Dr. Hans Herchen, BSC, DDS, and the CEO of Dental Choice in Alberta, Canada, following a set of core beliefs and serving patients respectfully is paramount for a group practice’s success.
“We are really built on the premise of our core values, and those core values are the driving force of our success,” Dr. Herchen says. “They give patients a reason to come to us; they give dentists a reason to come to us; and they give employees a reason to come to us.”
Dental Choice offers general, cosmetic, periodontal and reconstructive dental services providing patient-centric dental care at 15 locations throughout Alberta, Canada, namely in Edmonton, Calgary, and Airdrie.
Building a group practice
Dental Choice traces its roots back to 1990 at Dr. Herchen’s solo practice.
“It gave me a real understanding of clinical dentistry and operating a viable business in a competitive environment,” Dr. Herchen remembers. “We had two operatories and no windows and no street visibility. It was a very modest beginning, but we grew. In 18 months we doubled to four operatories, and in due course we increased to six.”
They were located in an area with strict marketing rules, so good customer service was paramount for the practice’s growth.
“We developed customer service and patient care techniques that won over patients,” Dr. Herchen says. “By combining that with respecting our staff, we developed a very viable, single dental office.”
From there he expanded to a second office, and then Dental Choice’s expansion was explosive. They added another office about every three years until they had six offices. Within 18 months they jumped yet again to 11 offices before growing to their current size of 15 offices.
“It all sounds pretty clean and simple, but the practical reality is we faced an enormous range and number of challenges,” Dr. Herchen says. “Each stage is different. Running one office is different than running two. Two offices is different than four, four is different than six, and so on. Each stage of the company had its own peculiar set of challenges.”
Expansion and growth
Dental Choice’s expansion is the result of both buying existing practices and starting new, de novo, practices. Each method comes with its own success strategies.
“You really have to have a set of systems and structures as to how to do each,” Dr. Herchen says. “At the end of the day it’s actually quite different to acquire a practice than it is to build a de novo practice from scratch.
“The de novo practices take much longer,” he explains, “and you need help with either the marketing budget or the cash flow from other locations to absorb the time it takes and the losses that occur. In terms of acquiring a practice, usually there’s cash flow from the beginning, and then it’s more of a team issue. How do we win over the team to the new systems? What existing systems do they have that we want to keep? And whether we brand the office or not is another decision when acquiring an existing location.”
Because of the group’s increasing demands, Dr. Herchen’s role has evolved. He stopped practicing dentistry 10 years ago, but for many years he served as both dentist and the CEO.
“Once we hit about 80 employees, it became difficult to be the CEO and a full-time practicing dentist,” Dr. Herchen says. “First I went to one-day-a-week, and then that wasn’t viable, so I transitioned to full-time CEO.”
Does he miss the practice of dentistry?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “The practice of dentistry has always given me a lot of joy. It was a career that was built perfectly for me. After 19 years of full-time practice, we had so many patients that loved us; our staff and our team were really in a good zone. The people that I practiced with full-time are still my friends. In a healthy practice, you get such a bond with the employees, that in many cases they’ve become friends for life.”
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In order to help the group continue to grow in a healthy manner, Dr. Herchen sought out the help of dental practice consultants, Levin Group. Levin Group assessed Dental Choice to determine its greatest areas of need.
“That assessment was important, because we have our own internal view of our company,” Dr. Herchen says. “A third-party view, that is independent, is a great place to start.”
But in order to get the best results, Dr. Herchen told the consultants that he wanted to hear the “vigorous truth” about the company. As a result, Levin Group visited the practice’s offices, met with doctors and staff, and reviewed their financial records.
The result was a game plan to help the practice develop, starting with enhanced patient communications. Dr. Herchen notes that patient communication is different when moving from a single office to a larger group practice.
“What Levin did was give us systems and benchmarks that allowed us to have the same standards at all locations that are relatively straightforward to achieve at a single location,” he says.
The secret to success, Dr. Herchen notes, is not really a secret at all – it’s plain, old-fashioned hard work.
“It’s a journey, and a commitment, and a lifestyle,” he says. “There is no quick in-and-out. There’s no free ride.”
He also reinforces the importance of focusing on the main function of the practice – dentistry.
“It’s the power of authenticity,” Dr. Herchen says. “In a world where behavior may be contrived to meet perceptions, being an authentic dentist is a powerful practice-building tool. A dentist needs to be a leader, and we strongly encourage that in our organization.”
The practice of dentistry is the most important duty of Dental Choice, and it is something that Dr. Herchen does not take his eye off of.
“It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it’s an honor and responsibility to be a dental professional,” he says. “Ultimately, we are all dental professionals first, and business people second. Although the business matters, the best way to build a business is to take great care of patients and to honor the professional code of conduct that we have agreed to when we became dentists.”