Not in recent memory has the dental industry experienced the degree of disruption that it faced in 2020. Dental practices across the country had to close, and dental patients faced tough circumstances as well. Their employers were affected by the pandemic, and many businesses were forced to issue furloughs, make layoffs, and/or reduce employee benefits. As a result, many people in our communities and our patient bases were left without dental insurance. This is a problem that we all must overcome in the year ahead, one that my practice is addressing through the development of a custom dental membership plan.
The story of Solomon Family Dentistry
Through tough times such as these, I am fortunate to practice dentistry to provide people with the care they need to stay healthy. Inspired by my father, who was also a dentist, I entered the dental profession in 2007. Today I am practicing at the same family-owned dental practice my father started in 1979. At that time, he was a solo practitioner who opened his business out of a desire to help the people of Summerville, South Carolina. He kept the doors to his practice open to patients six days a week, which was uncommon at the time. It was his example of true dedication that shaped my own personal mission of helping patients. Like my father, I also work six days a week at Solomon Family Dentistry. Through the years the practice has grown, and now it has six locations with 18 dentists and a staff of 160.
It was our practice’s patient-first philosophy that led us to offer the Solomon Savers Discount Plan, a dental membership plan through Launch Loyalty powered by Careington, a company that also dates back to 1979 and is owned by a dentist. Launch Loyalty worked with our practice to design a custom in-house dental membership plan that worked best for our patient base.
Reducing patients’ dental costs
Recognizing the detrimental impact that lack of dental insurance had on patients’ dental and overall health, I wanted to offer our patients an incentive to seek the dental treatment they truly needed. Our uninsured patients would come to our practice when they were experiencing oral pain or a dental problem, but they were reluctant to pay for x-rays or exams to determine the underlying issue. They were doing this out of fear of the high cost of procedures. We therefore decided that our membership plan would offer our cash-paying patients two free cleanings, two exams, and two x-rays per year, plus discounts on other dental treatment.
We started offering the Solomon Savers Discount Plan to meet the needs of our uninsured and underinsured patients who wanted to address their oral health needs but were on fixed budgets. By offering free exams and x-rays, patients learned what treatment was needed. By not paying for these services, they were able to apply their finances toward their dental procedures.
Our uninsured and underinsured patients are now far more willing to seek treatment using the membership plan approach. Additionally, we’ve found that patients who purchase the plan remain with the practice longer.
The effect of COVID-19
The pandemic has impacted practically every industry, and dentistry is no exception. The costs of practicing dentistry have risen due to new infection control measures and personal protective equipment requirements. However, production has decreased in many instances due to social distancing and a loss of insurance benefits due to rising unemployment. In fact, the unemployment rate reached 14.7% during the pandemic—the highest rate since the Great Depression.1 This increase in unemployment is expected to result in more than 16 million Americans losing employer-sponsored dental insurance.2
It is expected that with an increase of individuals who lack access to dental insurance through employers, the average dental practice will likely experience a decrease in preventive care, including checkups and exams. On the flip side, there is expected to be an increase in major procedures, such as tooth extractions and root canals.
COVID-19 provides another reason to delay or avoid routine oral care. An American Dental Association study indicated a decrease in routine care dental services was to be expected in the early stages of the pandemic, followed by a period of reduction in higher-cost services as the pandemic continues.3 Looking ahead, dental claims are expected to decline during the next three years, including a 34% decline this year, a 7% decline next year, and a 5% decline the year after next.4
Success with our dental membership plan
Our practice has seen a significant increase in patients who now lack dental insurance from their employers due to job loss. Many patients are stretched thin financially and are understandably delaying dental care as a result. I believe dental membership plans are particularly vital now, benefiting dental practices by attracting patients who otherwise might not seek dental care, while at the same time benefiting cash-paying patients by offering significant cost savings and reduced barriers to seeking treatment.
Dental membership plans could be of particular value for dental practices following the pandemic, as studies report approximately 83% of consumers are likely to stay with a dental practice that has an in-house dental membership plan. Furthermore, existing patients typically spend around 31% more than new patients.5
If you are considering implementing a dental membership plan for your practice, here are some things to keep in mind when looking for a program. We find it is extremely valuable to work with a company that not only offers a private-labeled plan that meets the needs of our patient base, but also handles the plan administration so we can focus on patient care.
Plan administration can be time-consuming and expensive. Dental practices should ensure the company they select for their plan provides the following key areas of program administration:
- Legal and compliance— It is essential to ensure your plan is compliant on both federal and state levels. Many administrators in the market don’t offer plan compliance, leaving a practice with costly legal fees.
- Automated billing— It is challenging to manage patient billing and renewals. Working with an administrator that ensures payment information is stored compliantly allows us to automatically collect plan fees at the point of renewal.
- Training— Having your staff sufficiently trained on your program helps considerably. This ensures they are well prepared to speak with patients about the value of the plan. Our administrator provides our staff with ongoing training through webinars, videos, and meetings to discuss strategies for program performance.
- Marketing— Customized marketing communications help with awareness and engagement among new, existing, and dormant patients. In fact, I believe the marketing support we receive for our program has proven to be invaluable and a key contributor to the high success of our plan.
- Customer service— Providing superior customer support is key to program satisfaction. Our patients can speak with a representative five days a week, so our staff doesn’t have to spend time answering patients’ plan-related questions.
- Custom website— A dental membership plan website customized for your practice allows your patients to learn detailed information about the program.
- Enrollment and retention— Offering multiple enrollment options to your patients is important. Our patients can enroll anytime through our plan website or by phone through the assistance of a call center. Our administrator can even assist patients with renewals and payment method issues, which helps greatly with retention.
Choose the right administrator
Finding the right administrator for a dental membership plan is an important aspect of solving the challenges dentists face today. Don’t try to handle the administration yourself; leave it to the experts.
Working with an administrator is less expensive, less risky, and eliminates worry. At Solomon Family Dentistry, we were happy to find a company that checked all the boxes. With our program through Launch Loyalty, the time-consuming and expensive administration is handled for us, allowing us to focus on patient care. Launch Loyalty even showed us the value of including other discounts in a dental membership plan, such as vision care, LASIK, and prescriptions. With the launch of our program, we experienced an increase in patient treatment plan acceptance, a boost in new patients, and greater loyalty among existing patients. In addition to benefiting our practice, we can proudly say that offering a dental membership plan offers tremendous value to our patients by providing much-needed savings on dental treatment.
As COVID-related uncertainty remains about what the future of dentistry will look like, we look forward to continuing to offer this valuable money-saving solution to our patients, so they don’t have to worry about expensive dental care.