Starting a Successful Dental Membership Plan
Provide uninsured patients with an option for care while improving retention and revenue
Brett Wells, DDS
It was 2008, and I had a patient in my chair who was nearly in tears. She had just lost her job as a result of the mortgage crisis, and she had frantically made the appointment to get in for a cleaning before her benefits were cut off. She was scared. I struggled to find the right words to comfort her, but I had no good options. There wasn't much that I could offer to help her and her family continue to get the routine care that they needed. That year and the next, I lost dozens of families, and many of them never returned.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2020, and tens of millions of Americans were losing their jobs and, with them, their employer-funded dental insurance. But this time, I was ready. I, along with thousands of other dentists, had a solution to retain uninsured patients: in-house membership plans. These plans allow my uninsured patients to continue to receive the dental care that they need at an affordable monthly rate.
Nine years ago, I began offering membership plans in my first practice, and they dramatically improved how I connected with my patients. If you are considering implementing a membership plan, here's how to set yourself, your team, and your practice up for success.
Evaluate Your Practice
When I first started using membership plans as a way to support my practice's growth and deliver a better patient experience, there weren't many resources available. Had I known how to optimize the benefits to both my practice and patients, success would have come much sooner. An excellent way to start is by asking yourself some tough but revealing questions, including the following:
• How many patients am I losing each year to attrition, and has this number increased or decreased over time?
• Are my case acceptance levels where I want them to be?
• How many uninsured patients do I have, how often do they come in for cleanings, and do they come in regularly or sporadically?
• Does it often feel like I'm spending too much time, energy, and money on patient acquisition and retention efforts?
• What measures do I have in place to help retain patients who are losing or have lost their dental insurance?
The answers to these questions will give you a baseline starting point that you can build on. If your practice is struggling with metrics-or morale-a dental membership plan may be able to deliver solutions that can give you the revenue boost you need.
Understand the Options
With so many emerging alternatives to traditional dental insurance, the terminology can become confusing. Unlike in-house membership plans, dental discount plans or savings plans are usually structured around an annual fee instead of monthly premiums. The patient receives a dental discount card, which can be presented at a participating practice to receive the discounted price on dental services. This model can encourage patients to move from practice to practice, which may be convenient for them but is less than ideal for your practice.
With an in-house membership plan program, the relationship is established between each individual practice and its patients. There is no middleman to determine who gets paid and who doesn't, and routine services are provided for a monthly or annual fee. For example, in my practices, for just $28 per month or $300 per year, members receive two cleanings per year, two in-office exams per year, radiographs, oral cancer screening, one emergency exam, and a 15% discount on any additional treatment that is needed.
My members love the plan. They feel more connected to my practice, actually visit closer to the 6-month mark, and by our calculations, are approximately 50% more likely to agree to additional restorative treatments than uninsured patients who aren't members. A direct relationship between your practice and your patients can be key to patient retention as well as overall patient satisfaction and improved treatment outcomes.
Consider an External Provider
When I started my first membership plan, I DIY-ed it. I like doing things my own way, so I figured I could do this, too. However, I quickly learned that some things are better left to the experts. Although some practices choose to set up their own dental membership programs, the back end can quickly become overwhelming for their teams, leading to mistakes in the financial records, or worse, in the patients' files. And what happens if the membership program is a wild success? As this area of the practice grows, the associated tasks and responsibilities of administration can become onerous for staff, leading to an overburdened office and, potentially, lost revenue. If you don't want to develop your own program, partnering with an external dental membership program platform can help you to automate the management and free up your team. Things to look for in a provider include simple interfaces, training and support, customizable plan options, transparent fee structures, marketing support, and ongoing development of the platform.
Customize Your Program
No two dental practices are the same. Service offerings, the pricing of procedures, patient demographics, and patient experiences are just a few of the attributes that differ from practice to practice. In order to create a program that fits your practice now while making it easy to adjust as your practice changes and grows, your dental membership plan needs to be easy to customize.
The best platforms allow you to easily set subscription and procedure prices, customize the services included in your plan based on the unique characteristics of your practice, and offer additional options to your patients, such as monthly payments and family member discounts. Plans should be simple and easy for patients to understand. Offices that place too many stipulations on services or implement complex, tiered pricing structures often have less success with their plans.
You and your team have all of the education, training, and expertise that your patients need, and your members should have access to your full range of services if they're paying for your plan. You can further customize your membership plan with add-on services like fluoride treatments, whitening, oral cancer screening, and even emergency care.
Set Your Pricing
How much do I charge for my membership plans? That's "the $64,000 question." The simple way to calculate a monthly rate is to add up the non-discounted "usual, customary, and reasonable" fees for the yearly services that you offer in your plan, divide by 12, and factor in a little discount for utilization. Although this method can provide a good guidepost, it may make sense to nudge the monthly price one way or the other depending on market conditions, your desire to acquire new uninsured patients, and other factors. The better platforms will help guide you through the price-setting process based on their experience with what works for practices similar to yours.
A Plan for Success
Without question, dental membership plans are revitalizing how we engage with our patients and deliver care. And reducing reliance on traditional insurance models has led to significant improvements for patients and practices alike. Despite recent economic hardship related to the COVID-19 pandemic, during the past few months, I've lost fewer than 5% of my more than 500 membership plan patients. Whether you chose to manage a plan on your own or utilize an external platform to automate the solution, what is most important is that you have a plan.
About the Author
Brett Wells, DDS, maintains a private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is the founder of DentalHQ.