We are living in unprecedented economic times. The global pandemic has been with us for more than a year, and it will probably stay around for months to come. The road to recovery for dental practices has undoubtedly been a difficult one. Staffing dental practices has proven to be incredibly challenging and the costs of getting patients to come back into the dental office has gone up substantially. While some dentists have opted to give up practice ownership altogether, many are choosing to step outside of their personal comfort zones, revisit traditional methods of managing their practice, reset strategic priorities and explore new technologies with the hope of finding greater operational efficiencies. The need to have a centralized view of all clinical procurement and inventory management activities has also never been greater. It is indeed the secret to transforming supply management from just another clinical support function to a key competitive advantage that ultimately improves the patient experience and safety.
In a survey of dental professionals in the United States, conducted by the American Dental Association (ADA) Health Policy Institute, as of the week of January 18, 2021, 99% of dental practices in the U.S. were open. Around 43% of practices reported “business as usual” in terms of patient volume. Approximately 56% of practices were open but with a lower than usual patient volume. Large group practices or ones affiliated with a dental support organization (DSO) tended to be in a more favorable economic position. Around 55% of them reported that they were back to “business as usual” in terms of patient volume. To some extent, patient volume varied by geography, DSO affiliation, practice size, and specialty. In the same survey, when asked about the specific measures each practice has taken to maintain their financial viability, raising fees, reducing the dental team size or hours, and changing the dental materials supplier or lab were reported most frequently. These three measures taken by dental practices concurrently could certainly reduce operating costs but at the expense of also lowering patient outcomes, satisfaction, and retention.
Currently, despite the additional precautions undertaken by dental practices to ensure the public’s safety, a sizable segment of the patient population, particularly those who are older, is hesitant to visit their dentist or hygienist due to fears of contracting COVID-19. Furthermore, the cost associated with obtaining professional dental care has historically been one of the primary reasons why a sizable percentage of the public would skip routine hygiene appointments, and even at times, emergency, and highly needed dental procedures. Given the rise in national unemployment rates, the financial uncertainty felt by many households, raising the fees associated with dental procedures may further deter patients from seeking necessary dental treatment and consequently lower the revenue of dental practices.
Every dental practice that is providing optimal care for its patients would agree that having a routine set of office policies, clinical protocols, providers, and dental materials, to name but a few elements, are crucial to their financial success. Patients like to see familiar faces who have treated them before. The currency of a dental practice is ultimately trust. As such, significant changes in the availability of providers and the employee mix could deteriorate the overall patient experience, especially considering that they might already be nervous about visiting a dental practice during a pandemic. For the clinical team, working with familiar and proven dental materials is important because of the added stress of having to learn something new while simultaneously dealing with a great degree of change or uncertainty in their personal lives. As mentioned before, changing a dental material supplier or lab during the pandemic due to financial reasons has been a measure undertaken by many dental practices in response to the global pandemic. This change, even if necessary, at certain times and circumstances, could potentially disrupt the clinical flow and compromise patient outcomes.
There is another issue that might arise due to a lack of certainty in whether your practice will be fully operational. That is unorganized patient scheduling and manual forecasting of how much inventory is needed on hand to perform certain procedures. One strategy deployed by many dental practices is to order supplies in higher quantities out of an abundance of caution. However, there are multiple downsides to this supply ordering strategy. A bulk order often means higher upfront costs and tying up limited working capital that could be put to better use in other areas of the practice. For smaller practices, bulk ordering supplies during the pandemic is likely not a viable option since they are probably already under a lot of financial pressure given that their limited production capacity never far exceeded their fixed overhead expenses. Bulk orders also create the need for more storage space which might not readily be available or appropriate given new infection prevention and control measures. Also, because of the uncertainty of the current pandemic and changes to patient flow that ultimately result from it, dental practices might end up not using all the bulk ordered stock and be forced to dispose of expired materials, costing thousands of dollars. Furthermore, bulk orders could require the practice to accept longer term commitments with a certain supplier to obtain more affordable pricing or payment terms. They may also reduce the agility of the practice if it needed to shift its procedure mix (ex. perform less dental implant placements) in response to changes in the operating environment such as patient preferences, new technologies or the availability of competing providers with more specialized training or discounted treatment offers.
On the other hand, if a practice runs low or is completely out of certain materials, it could potentially be forced to cancel patient appointments and defer much needed production. Patients may seek treatment elsewhere rather than opting to wait for the necessary dental materials to arrive. There are also supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE) that are needed for every patient visit. When it comes to the question of whether dental practices have an adequate stock of PPE, around one third of the respondents to the ADA Health Policy Institute survey reported having less than 14 days’ worth of supply on hand. Any disruption in the supply of PPE could result in canceling all patient appointments to protect the health of employees and patients alike. Canceling a visit is the last thing a patient who has managed to book an appointment despite all the barriers placed in front of them wants to experience, especially if they are dealing with an emergency or are mid-treatment. Cancelled patient appointments may also result in employee turnover as those who see their work schedules condensed may seek alternative sources of employment income. This incident, if repeated, could force patients to complain to a regulatory authority or write a negative online review about the practice. Raising the practice’s service fees, the inconvenience caused by forced cancelations due to poor inventory management practices, along with changes in clinical flow and providers will all negatively impact your practice profitability.
The pandemic has highlighted the severe shortcomings of the manual procurement and inventory management process utilized by many dental practices. There are numerous dental practices that have resorted to bulk ordering out of fear of running out of supplies because matching the availability of inventory with forecasted patient demand is extremely time consuming, if not next to impossible, without the use of modern technology. Without automating key aspects of order management, the ability to accurately forecast supply levels and be alerted when those supply levels reach a minimum amount, dental practices may find themselves panic buying with no guarantee that shipments of much needed materials will arrive in time for patient procedures. Swell understands the importance of acquiring new patients and retaining them. Swell Schedule easily plugs into your website to let patients request their own appointments thereby giving your staff one less thing to do. It would be a shame once those patients finally arrive, if you did not have sufficient dental materials on hand to perform the treatment, collect payment and obtain that positive online review you desperately needed to boost team morale. That is why Swell has partnered with Sowingo, the leading cloud-based compliance, procurement, inventory and spend management software in the dental industry.
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