How to Retain Patients When Buying or Joining a Practice

An illustration of a dentist and patient

Joining a new practice? Whether as a new owner or associate, you probably have a lot on your mind, including everything from using new materials or technologies to interacting with the assistants.

Add to your list potentially the most important thing of all: keeping existing patients coming in the door and getting them to refer their family and friends.

Patient retention is often considered key to a successful practice transition. New associates are hired because the current practice has more treatment than they can handle. And if you are buying the practice, patient retention is even more important. Did you know that the financing that the bank provided you was based on your ability to maintain (or better yet, grow) the current production numbers?

Set yourself up for success by doing the legwork to find a practice where you and the other doctor share a common approach in how you interact with the patients, staff, and community. In other words, you and the practice should share a philosophy of care.

How retaining staff increases patient retention

Generally speaking, one of the best ways to retain patients is to first retain existing staff. If staff believe in you, they will be your biggest advocate, as staff are often very engaged with patients. If staff do not experience fundamental changes to the work culture, they will usually stay and be great supporters. However, if there are jarring changes, there is a high likelihood of them bolting — especially in a competitive job market.

To improve staff retention, find a practice where you agree with the way staff approaches their job. Make sure the office policies are in line with your core beliefs.

Some things to look for when evaluating office culture include:

  • Is staff consulted when big decisions are made in the office, or is the staff simply told how the decisions will affect them?
  • Is the practice fine allowing last-second time-off requests for family issues (including “my teenager missed the bus this morning and I need to leave for an hour to get them to school”)?
  • Are collections policies strictly adhered to, or does the office take a “pay me when you can” approach?
  • How much autonomy do the staff have?
  • Are staff treated like family or like employees?

See: 6 Ways to Get Staff Buy-in for Your Practice Transition and What Went Wrong: My Staff Left After I Bought the Practice

Keeping long-term patients

Since the practice’s success is intimately associated with the current patient load and the treatments provided, you want to ensure continuity of the patient experience.

That doesn’t mean that you must do dentistry exactly the same; after all, there are multiple ways to achieve a great result. What is important is sharing a common approach to treatment planning and general views on oral health. It does not matter how you place a composite, but it does matter how you look at the situation. For instance, if the practice policy is to place amalgam restorations on all posterior teeth and you view amalgam as a serious health risk, there will be fundamental problems as you discuss these issues with the patients and staff.

Think about the following to start defining how you approach patient care and look for potential conflicts. For example, ask yourself:

  • How does the practice approach hygiene checks? Does the dentist do a hygiene check every visit or is it up to the hygienist to determine when/if an exam is necessary?
  • How many operatories are running treatment? Does the practice schedule one patient for treatment at a time or is the dentist running five treatment chairs and utilizing dental staff to the fullest extent possible?
  • What is the policy on patient wait times? Are the patients waiting to be brought back for appointments or does the practice have a history of running exactly on time?

None of the above scenarios is the right or wrong way to approach the patient experience. However, if your way of doing things directly conflicts with the way things have always been done, patients may very well take their business elsewhere.

See: What Went Wrong: The Quality of Care Wasn’t Up to My Standard

Why community matters during a practice transition

Dentists are often known as leaders in their communities, commonly sitting on city councils, sponsoring youth sports teams, and participating in local health initiatives. If the practice you are joining or purchasing does many of these things but you prefer to have little involvement beyond providing quality care in the office, there may be a problem retaining patients who are accustomed to seeing the dentist out in public.

As you look for the right practice, think about how you see yourself interacting within the community and ask yourself:

  • Does the current dentist actively recruit and engage with local elementary schools, extended care facilities, or special needs communities? If so, ask what percentage of the practice’s patients come from these referral sources and determine your desire to continue these practices.
  • What does the practice do to nurture relationships with other dental and medical professionals in the area? Be sure you are ready to continue the current practices or anticipate a drop in patients.
  • Is the current owner generally active in the community or not? Are you ok running into patients at the grocery store, or do you prefer to see patients only in the office?

Many dentists are introverts who do exceptionally well without being heavily involved in their communities. The only time it is a problem is when a dentist who has no desire to be involved joins or purchases a practice where the patients expect the dentist to be engaged with them outside the office. Knowing yourself and your preferences is key, then you can find a practice that fits!

How to choose the right practice

Deciding that a practice is right for you entails much more than simply evaluating the financials or knowing which technologies are in place. It is more about finding the right fit, the place with a similar approach.

After all, you can always update the office space or install a CBCT. What you can’t do is alienate the patients and staff when you need to maintain or increase the current productivity in an office.

Look for an office where you share a common mission, vision, and goals. Ask lots of questions during the interview or purchase process to make sure you and the senior doctor are on the same page. Reviewing a few recent charts and looking at a representative week’s schedule can help drive these conversations. Remember, you don’t need to do everything exactly the same way — but you do need to feel confident that your approach won’t be jarring to patients or staff.

See: How to Tell If That Nice Practice is Right for You

Once you’re in the door, live within the current structure for at least six months to let the staff and patients get to know you. Over time, you can gradually begin adjusting processes and policies — but keep in mind your patients’ expectations and preferences! 

See: Found a Practice? Don’t Overlook These 5 Must-Ask Questions

Remember, patients and staff have come to expect certain things out of a practice. As you consider joining a practice, think about how your approach will fit into those existing expectations — and how you can work to retain patients long after the paperwork is signed.