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Park Dental is a group effort by dentists

Minneapolis—At Park Dental, the dentists are in charge.

The dentists make all of the decisions on the clinical side, determining the appropriate and best patient care. They also make all of the decisions regarding the business side of the practice, including accounting, staffing and dealing with outside vendors. Patients can be assured that any decision made within one of the 24 Park Dental practices was made by a dentist. 

Image: Dr. Marshall
Dr. Marshall

Park Dental appears to be unique among large group dental practices in that it is owned and governed solely by licensed dentists, not by a dental management service organization or other outside interested party. The practices have business managers, accountants, consultants, bankers and other vendors to handle their areas of expertise but it’s dentists who hire them and dentists who make the final calls.

“Our governance and organizational structure are very clearly delineated,” said Dr. Todd Marshall, Park Dental board member, during a presentation to the ADA Council on Dental Practice May 31. “Our 60 shareholder dentists own the group. That means everything, including patient records, equipment, leases, accounts receivable, etc. We also employ and direct all of our staff. The shareholders elect five dentists to board of directors, each serving a five-year term. The president is a shareholder dentist and is selected by the board of directors.”

It’s a distinct setup that’s piqued the curiosity of CDP members, who were interested to hear about this model of large group practice.

“If I had my preference, I would rather a dentist own the group practice than a venture capitalist,” said Dr. Douglas Torbush, CDP member. “I think a dentist is more in tune with the needs of the patient first than a corporation looking at profits first.” 

As Dr. John Gulon, president of Park Dental, describes it, Park Dental is in the business of treating patients.

Image: Dr. Gulon
Dr. Gulon
“Anything related to our financial performance is a direct result of what we do for our patients, not the other way around,” Dr. Gulon said.

Park Dental was founded in 1972 by two Minnesota dentists looking to start a group practice, a novel concept at the time. Dr. Gregory Swenson and Dr. Brian “Bud” Murn opened Brookpark Dental Center in Brooklyn Center, Minn., with three dentists, three dental assistants, three hygienists and five other team members.

It’s grown to 89 general dentists and 530 team members working in 24 practices in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.

From 1996 to 2007, Park Dental had an affiliation with American Dental Partners, Inc., a relationship Dr. Marshall said worked well for a number of years. ADPI purchased certain assets owned by the dentists’ professional corporation and also entered into a service contract to provide nondental administrative services to the group practice.

In 2007, Park Dental Group, the dental group that operated the Park Dental and Dental Specialists clinics, sued ADPI and its local subsidiary, PDHC Ltd., alleging that the service provider was operating the Park Dental clinics without the direction from a Minnesota licensed dentist or any dentist. PDG claimed that the management company was violating the Minnesota Dental Practice Act and the parties’ contract. The dental group also alleged that ADPI interfered with its plans to transition to new clinics after PDG terminated its contract with the service provider in March 2007.

A jury decided ADPI should pay PDG $130.6 million, and the two parties later entered a settlement agreement where PDG took back the majority of its dental clinic spaces and other assets of the practice that had been owned by ADPI.

The experience made Park Dental dentist leaders think about how they wanted to move forward in their large group practice and solidified their stance in making the dentist the authority on all practice issues.

“We are a doctor-owned, doctor-managed and doctor-operated dental group,” Dr. Marshall said. “Our culture, value system and key processes are aligned to ensure consistency across every practice location. We are patient-centered in all decisions and all actions, and we strive for the highest level of clinical care and personal service.”

Their values include giving back. It’s Park Dental’s belief that providing dental care for underserved patients and participating in community service, such as Give Kids A Smile and Missions of Mercy events, is imperative to living up to its mission. Park Dental not only provides care for underserved patients at special events but every day in its offices.

“We think it’s very, very important to be a part of the community and providing services,” Dr. Marshall said. “It’s part of our roots. We try to be engaged beyond our metropolitan area.” 

Their legal battle also gave them the tools to be able to advise other dentists who may be interested in joining or forming their own group practice.

“Do your homework. Do a lot of research. Ask a lot of difficult questions,” Dr. Marshall said. “It becomes complex because I think most dentists don’t know the right questions to ask. The questions that are most important are about decision making, control and patient care.”

Dr. Jamie Sledd, CDP member, believes it’s important for CDP to learn from the Park Dental group’s experience to provide guidance for new or transitioning dentists who are interested in joining a group practice. Dr. Sledd said she is impressed with Park Dental’s group practice model and got the impression they are similar to solo practitioners, just on a grander scale.

“There are pros and cons to that,” Dr. Sledd said. “The larger scale has greater buying power and they can certainly rely on each other for support through decision making, research, continuing education, management, etc. Solo practitioners, like myself, have to go elsewhere to find those things.”

Above everything, Park Dental dentist leaders say dentists should ask themselves what type of group practice they want to affiliate with.

“Do you want to be in a group that’s just sharing the benefits of cost savings or do you want to be in a group of dentists that is working together with a common set of principles and beliefs?” said Dr. Gulon.

At the CDP meeting, Drs. Gulon and Marshall stressed Park Dental’s commitment to organized dentistry and, specifically, to the ADA.

“As of today, we at Park Dental commit to you that 100 percent of our owner and associate dentists will be ADA members by Sept. 1,” Dr. Marshall said. “This will be an investment of more than $150,000 annually in organized dentistry. We are committed to our patients and our profession.”