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Dentists cut expenses, delay plans, purchases

As the country's financial and business sectors focus on getting growth back on track, so do U.S. dentists.

That news was revealed in third quarter survey results from the ADA's Quarterly Survey of Economic Confidence. From Oct. 12-21, the ADA Health Policy Resources Center surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,552 dentists to compare the performance of key dental practice metrics during the third quarter to those of the second quarter.

Despite across the board declines—in net income, gross billings, new patient volumes and appointments—69.8 percent of dentists said they were either somewhat confident (56.6 percent) or very confident (12.5 percent) that economic conditions for their dental practices would improve in the next year.

"There seems to be a sense that we're at the beginning of the end," commented Dr. Jeffrey Cole.

Dr. Cole is a member of the Council on Dental Practice and its Subcommittee on Economic Issues.

"Although many believe that unemployment will be a problem into the first and second quarter of next year, as unemployment improves, so will patient flow into dental offices."

"What happens in dentistry isn't reflective of what happens in the stock market, but what's happening in consumer confidence," said Dr. Bill D'Aiuto, a member of CDP and the SEI. "If unemployment stays at 10 percent or goes into double-digits, recovery will be a little slower. But the declines aren't a surprise because they're indications of a recession on small businesses."

Dental practice metrics the Health Policy Resources Center surveyed in the third quarter were gross billings, collections, adjustments and write-offs, accounts receivable, new patient volume, open appointment time, and treatment plan acceptance rate.

Confidence measures surveyed about were net income expectations, confidence in gross billings and confidence in economic conditions.

In response to the question: "Has the recession changed your plans," fully 80 percent of dentists indicated that they had delayed or made a significant change.

"It shouldn't be surprising that dentists are putting off such things as retirement or buying new equipment," said Dr. Michael Halasz, a CDP member and chair of the SEI. "We need to weather the storm, think like business people as well as health care professionals."

Dr. Cole said the changes are occurring because many general dentists are able business people.

"Dentists are taking economic factors into consideration and reacting by making changes in their business plans," he said.

Dr. Michael Schuster, a practicing dentist and founder of the Schuster Center for Professional Development, teaches concepts of managerial excellence, economic freedom and personal growth.

"Dentists have to lower their expenses," advised Dr. Schuster. "Whenever there is a recession, there's a decrease in sales and an increase in accounts receivable. It's just what happens."

Dr. Schuster said it would be interesting if dentists thought that no matter what economic conditions are, dentists should continue to make money without making any changes.

"Just as in the business world, dentists have to think about creating new ways to add value," Dr. Schuster observed. "And the only way to do that is to create value for your patients."

He warned dentists to be wary of the same problem all business people face in such circumstances: falling into survival mode.

"It's something to avoid," said Dr. Schuster. "When people fall into survival mode it becomes 'more and more about me and less and less about you'—the you in this case being the patient. What can happen is dentists can end up pushing people and making it worse on themselves."

Dr. Schuster says the time is now for dentists to find out what's important to patients and think about how to create value for every single one of them.

"When people have less money they start looking at where they'll get the best return," he said.

Dr. Christopher Larsen, a CDP and SEI member believes patients' discretionary dollars and the value dentists create go hand in hand.

"We're all choosing with our dollars these days," said Dr. Larsen. "The opportunity to observe these survey results is a real benefit to us all. It reminds us we're not alone in our economic predicament."

Created through the Council on Dental Practice, the SEI works with HPRC to assess the effects of the recession on dentistry and identify ways to help ADA members survive and thrive in tough economic times. A direct result of this collaboration is the Dental Practice Hub at http://dentalpracticehub.ada.org—an ADA member benefit destination centralizing resources and information useful to dentists during this recession and in any economic climate.

The Web site has four primary sections—Economic Impact, Patient Communications, Practice Management and Practice Building.

  • Economic Impact demonstrates how the economy is affecting the profession and provides guidance on what dentists can do to make their practices financially viable.
  • Patient Communications provides tips to strengthen the patient-to-dentist relationship.
  • Practice Management highlights issues including dental benefits, staffing and practice transitions.
  • Practice Building outlines cost-effective tips to build the dental practice.

ADA members who have suggestions for Dental Practice Hub content should click "contact us," at the top of each of the online pages. For more information e-mail Dr. Pam Porembski or call toll-free, Ext. 7463.