Independent Dentists Need to Work Together to Learn From Corporate Dentistry

February 3, 2016
Ed Rabinowitz

The majority of dentists remain independent, yet the world of corporate dentistry is making a bigger and bigger impact on the practice of dentistry. Rather than fearing the rise of corporate dentistry, one expert says independent dentists should learn from it.

The 2010 Survey of Dental Practices conducted by the American Dental Association indicates that 86% of all dentists work as independent practitioners.

That percentage has not changed in the last few years, and thus represents the overwhelming majority of dentists compared to those who have gone the corporate dentistry route.

So, why all the angst over the growth of corporate dental?

“The overall feeling about corporate dental among my clients, the independent dentists, is anywhere from it’s something to be feared to the unknown,” explains Wendy O’Donovan Phillips, part owner of Dentistry Unchained, a membership organization dedicated to the ongoing success of independent dentistry and dental practices. “There’s definitely a sort of negative feeling.”

But Phillips, whose organization takes an objective stance on the issue, believes that in any industry, competition is good.

“I believe that corporate dentistry really provides the independent dentist with a big opportunity,” she says, “if they’re willing to take it.”

A New Marketplace

There’s no question about some of the benefits of corporate dentistry. Corporate dental practices are very well equipped on the business side of the practice. That includes unmatched marketing, guaranteed income for providers, and vast resources that are not available to most private practice owners.

But Phillips points out that the independent dentist can look to corporate dental and learn how best to raise his or her game to better compete in this new marketplace.

“Because corporate dental has encroached, it gives the independent dentist more of an opportunity to learn from them and to really raise their ‘A Game’ on the business side of the practice,” she says. “I think some dentists are still hoping that maybe it will go back to the way it was and they could just run a Yellow Pages ad and hang a shingle, as they say in the industry, put a sign out on the road front and that the patients will come. And it just simply isn’t that way any more.”

A Leap of Faith

Part of the attraction or corporate dental for practitioners coming out of dental school is the ability to get their feet on the ground, get some experience under their belts, and pay off the great deal of the educational debt they have accumulated.

“It looks like a seriously daunting task to buy into a practice or start one on your own,” Phillips says. “Going directly from dental school to corporate dental can be a good move.”

She explains that doing so provides the dentist with an immediate way to enter the industry and begin practicing while paying back those student loans. But there are different challenges in corporate dental, and practitioners will have little to no control over how those challenges are addressed. That includes non-doctor management applying pressure for increased production.

“Some become disenchanted with that lack of control, and want more control around resolving the challenges and building the practices of their dreams,” Phillips says. And it’s a huge risk. Any business owner will tell you that leap of faith they take is always a scary thing. But we’ve got some real thought leaders in independent dentists today. And those are the ones who will thrive as independent dentists. Those are the ones who will not only make the leap of faith out of corporate dental, but they’re the ones who will do whatever it takes to learn or to outsource that business side to compete on a rigorous scale with, not only corporate dental, but other thriving dental practices.”

Banding Together

Phillips says that the most important thing independent dentists need to do is collaborate with each other. She calls them “notorious lone wolves” who tend to “stay in their little corner of the world.” But that won’t work.

“The number one thing that the independent dentist can do to get ahead and to really thrive in the marketplace is to get out of that solo practitioner mentality,” Phillips says.

That doesn’t necessarily mean buying up several practices or becoming partners with other practitioners. However, partnering in the form of a local study group, of sorts, can be very beneficial.

“Meet once monthly to discuss what’s going on in the marketplace around corporate dentistry and what can be learned from corporate dentistry,” Phillips suggests.

The independent dentist, she says, still sees corporate dentistry as the enemy; as something to be feared. As such, they choose to close their doors and not pay attention to it. Doing so simply creates more fear.

“But if we open the doors and begin conversations with each other, independent dentist to independent dentist, that’s when we’re going to continue to preserve the integrity of the profession overall.”

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