Unlocking the Power Trapped in Your Dental Practice Data

There is more to just gathering data to boost your dental practice. Analyzing and understanding data go a long way in improving practice management.

Back in the old days of paper charts and hardcopy forms (if those days aren’t already behind you, they should be), practice data was nearly impossible to compile in useful or efficient ways. But with the advent and adoption of electronic dental records (EDRs) and practice-management software, dental practitioners have been gifted a wealth of information, all right at their fingertips.

That’s all good and fine, provided a dental practice owner knows how to utilize and analyze the data.

“You need to data mine,” says Laci Phillips Newland, practice management speaker, coach, and founding partner at Practice Dynamics. “You have to ask the right questions and then know how to use those answers. You need to know how to use your practice management software to do it—because the software can do it.”

Knowing how to analyze and properly understand this data can provide valuable insights in not only the health and success of the dental practice, but also how to improve the level of patient care a practice can provide. Data mining can assist practices with everything from marketing and business strategies to determining which dental protocols are most effective—if the doctor knows how to analyze this information.

“Dentists were not set up to run a practice leaving dental school,” Gary Kadi, founder of Next Level Practice, says. “Many are frustrated that they have really great clinical skills, but now they’re staring at this monster called their business. So, the doctor needs to look at the measures and metrics, and reverse engineer what they need to do to be a successful practice.”

Practice growth

Data can be key to building this successful practice by measuring the efficacy of marketing and patient acquisition—critical aspects of practice growth and increasing your bottom line.

“First and foremost, you have to know who your demographic is,” says Phillips Newland. “You have to run some reports in your software and figure out, ‘okay, who's my patient base, where are they coming from, how are they finding us.’ I'm always shocked at how many dental practices don't track where their referrals are coming from. Knowing how your patients are finding your practice allows you to put your marketing dollars where they’ll be most effective. You’ve got to do a little bit of research before jumping in.”

And the data can be your diving board. In addition to helping pinpoint where marketing will be most effective, it allows you to conduct—and track—experiments to determine if your marketing is working. Did you see an influx of patients after a social media campaign? Did physical mailers increase your number of new patients?

“When we plug this information into our practice management software, we’re getting real-time data,” Kadi says. “Then we have an education system of how to fix where they numbers are going down, and focus on what’s making the numbers go up.”

By tracking these numbers, you can identify correlations that will allow you to target your marketing even more effectively and determine which techniques are yielding the best results.

“Every practice management system out there can do this, so there’s no excuse not to use it to identify which tactics are working” says Phillips Newland. “Certain demographics respond better to particular types of marketing. Print marketing is coming back for the demographics that are leaving social media. Once you identify the patient base you want, you can cater to what will be most attractive to them.”

Practice performance

However, attracting new patients isn’t the only way your practice data can become profitable. Tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) is vital to evaluate production and collection, costs, case acceptance, and patient retention.

“I think so many times we concentrate on the new patient instead of addressing patient retention,” Phillips Newland says. “Data mining is critical to finding out how many patients you’ve lost and how you can bring them back in. A patient you haven’t seen in 18 months is not an active patient, but you may be able to reengage them.”

Kadi agrees that the emphasis should be on retaining current patients, and getting those patients to accept treatment.

“99% of dentists are focused on the marketing for new patient business,” he says. “But the focus should be case acceptance, patient retention, and then new patients. Because what most people do is they throw new patients in to a business model where only 20% of their patients are coming back twice in their hygiene department, and, when they're there, only 28% of their patients accept treatment. So, if they just went to work on their patient retention and their case acceptance first and plug the holes, they would be so busy that they wouldn't even need new patients.”

Analytics can help plug those holes, but if you’re not using them blind spots can develop about your practice performance.

Patient care

Understanding your practice data isn’t just about improving your bottom line. It provides critical opportunities to assess the efficacy of treatment, and areas that need improvement. Your practice data can help improve patient care, which should be the end goal for any dental practice. Data analytics techniques can help evaluate, and improve, oral health outcomes not only for your practice, but across the nation.

For example, in the summer of 2020, a team of researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, assessed data from EDRs from nearly 100 dental practices across the United States. The study found that it was possible to mine data to determine which dental therapies were effective, and which ones were resulting in repeat visits or treatment failure. It also helped identify gaps in oral care between different populations.

Studies like these can help practices benchmark their own successes against national averages and metrics, to identify areas that may need improvement. For example, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that 70.1% of adults over the age of 65 have periodontal disease.1 If rates in a particular practice are significantly lower than this, the clinician may want to evaluate if they might be underdiagnosing periodontitis in their clinic—potentially putting patients at risk of even more serious oral disease. This presents an opportunity to ensure that all the doctors and staff in a practice have a standardized diagnostic system, so that cases of periodontal disease aren’t falling through the cracks.

By properly utilizing aggregated data, and comparing their practice to others, clinicians can provide improved outcomes to patients, and stay abreast of the latest treatment successes and failures. Patient and demographic data can help identify which oral-health problems recur repeatedly, allowing them to provide patients with individually tailored suggestions backed by real-time numbers. In short, data-driven dentistry can be a key factor in how you effectively and successfully administer dental care and provide precision dentistry.

Unlocking the data

Practice data obviously provides a lot of room for practice improvement both from the clinical and business standpoints, but it’s all for naught if the technology and information isn’t being used correctly. One big step in being able to implement the benefits of practice-management systems, and the data contained therein, is to get the team on board.

“I find one of the biggest downfalls in in our dental practices is that we invest in technology and then we don't really know how to use it,” Phillips Newland says. “And then we get the pushback from the team that says, ‘I don't have time to learn how to use it or implement it.’ You have to take the time to train, which will make your practice more efficient and effective in the long run. You have to get your team to buy into the software and its value.”

Kadi adds that engaging with your team and tracking their personal KPIs and production data can also improve team performance. He believes that getting the team involved and invested in the success of a practice can be a make-or-break scenario.

“A big mistake that practices make is that they don’t incentivize and put measures in place for their team,” he says. “If the team is succeeding—and you’ll know from the data—they should be rewarded. If you have the controls in place, you can reward your team, which creates a positive environment. When you take care of your internal customers (your team) as well as external customers (your clients), the business owner always wins. And the numbers hold the answer to satisfying both.”

In short, data is the answer to practice success. From teambuilding to marketing, case acceptance to best clinical practices, data should be steering the ship that is the dental practice—not languishing uselessly in the depths of your practice-management software.

1. Eke PI, Dye B, Wei L, Thornton-Evans G, Genco R. Prevalence of Periodontitis in Adults in the United States: 2009 and 2010. Published online 30 August 2012:1–7. J Dent Res.