In 2008, husband and wife duo Kate and Ged Cummings were practising dentistry in a small NHS dental practice in Stoke-on-Trent. Today they head up a large, continuously growing private practice with a bright future. Following this amazing journey, which ultimately involved speedy expansion and the consolidation of two practices, Regional Support Manager, Josie Hutchings sat down with Kate Cummings to talk about what fuelled the changes, and how the team overcame the challenges they faced during the process.
Josie: Here you are, nearly a decade on from that first all-important decision to move from NHS to private dentistry. What we all want to know is – how did it all start for you and the team?
Kate: Back then we had a practice in Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent, which was 100% NHS and we were seeing about 100 patients a day. As any dental team member can tell you, that is no mean feat! At that time we had two dentists, one therapist and four additional members of staff, and everyone was pulling together to do the best job we could. But the truth is, although we were delivering a high level of service under the NHS, it was nonetheless lower than we desired. We wanted to deliver long-term, preventive-focused care and to be able to spend more time getting to know our patients’ needs and wants – and then to exceed their expectations.
Having recognised that we wanted to provide dentistry beyond the parameters of the NHS, Ged – the principal dentist and my husband – and I had a number of conversations about where we saw our professional future. With some level of regret we concluded that, for our practice, delivering NHS dentistry wasn’t a viable option any more but we were also excited by the prospect of what private dentistry could offer both us and our patients for the future.
“We wanted to deliver long-term, preventive-focused care and to be able to spend more time getting to know our patients’ needs and wants.”
To give you a glimpse of what the future held, today we run Hanford Dental and Implant Centre, which is centrally located in Staffordshire, enabling us to offer services throughout the county and beyond! We have three dentists, one therapist, four dental nurses, and a practice manager. We offer general dental treatment, dedicated hygiene care focusing on preventive dentistry and aesthetic treatments, including implants and veneers. We still have room for expansion and the motivation to achieve exactly that!
Josie: When you say you had ‘some level of regret’ leaving the NHS, what do you mean? How did you overcome it?
Kate: I mean that we recognised that there is an important place in healthcare delivery for NHS dentistry, but it just wasn’t for us anymore; we wanted something different for the patients, us and the business. From both a caring and health perspective it’s nice now to have the time to communicate more fully with patients and to offer the best possible level of service. The plan we have adopted is very heavily weighted towards maintenance and prevention, while the NHS is more reactive because you haven’t got the time to do anything else. So, in a nutshell, we overcame the regret of leaving the NHS by making changes that have allowed us to offer so much more to our patients, the vast majority of whom chose to come with us on our journey.
Josie: So much has happened in a short amount of time, which must have seemed really daunting. How did you go about working towards it all?
Kate: We envisaged a level of care driven by our team’s desire to provide a preventive-led service; a concept that we felt much more comfortable with than working within the somewhat more limiting treatment-focused parameters of the NHS. We were nervous about it though, and knew we wanted to partner with a company that could help us to make sure we did the right thing, both for us and our patients.
As far as we were concerned, the right thing was to be supported by experts in the field during the conversion. We felt it would help us feel confident in communicating a positive message about the changes to our patients – after all moving from NHS to private can be a big concern for patients – as well as believing there was a strong possibility that we would come out of it in a good financial position. We also wanted to be able to expand our services pretty quickly and work towards becoming a referral practice with an excellent all-round reputation.
“Part of the reason for that was that Practice Plan kept the focus very much on patient care, alongside understanding the importance of our business goals.”
Bearing all of that in mind, we looked around to see what companies were out there that might gel well with us, and, following a number of meetings with various plan providers and asking like-minded colleagues already in the ‘trenches’, we decided Practice Plan was the best one for us, and that’s where you came in Josie. Part of the reason for that was that Practice Plan kept the focus very much on patient care, alongside understanding the importance of our business goals.
Initially, a lot of our fears were down to financial concerns. It is very difficult to build up the courage to move away from the financial security offered by an NHS contract to the new economies of private practice. We wondered if our patients would stick with us, and therefore whether we could make a private practice a viable entity.
As a team, both within the practice and with help from you Josie, we looked at how many patients we had and our income, and calculated the level at which a plan would be financially viable. This meant we knew what we needed to work to. If we had felt that we couldn’t achieve that level then we would not have converted, because there was so much for us to lose as practice owners. Actually, in the end, we converted a lot more patients than we had anticipated.
Josie: I remember when we went through the figures and calculated what proportion of your patients you needed to retain, which you then went on to exceed! So, can you talk me through how such a great conversion rate was achieved?
Kate: Knowing our patients so well following years of building a great rapport with them while delivering NHS care, we really wanted to make the change a positive and easy journey for them. Like everything we do, a team approach was the key to success, and as part of this we made sure training was in place – which you and the team at head office were instrumental in delivering – so that we could all effectively share with our patients what an attractive proposition we were offering.
Josie: How did that work in reality?
Kate: To place it in context, we sent out between 2,500 and 3,000 letters on the same day to our patient list to introduce them to the idea. When you do something like that you have to know that as soon as they hit people’s doormats the phones are going to ring off the hook and patients are going to turn up in person at the practice wanting to know more. But thanks to the training we knew how to deal with it all, such as which staff needed to be in the days following the letters arriving at their destinations, and what systems had to be in place to deal with the influx of telephone calls and impromptu visits effectively whilst still running the day’s clinic.
Josie: So there you are, just a few months into the conversion in Hanley, and you decide to buy another practice. Why and how did you decide to proceed with such a significant undertaking in such a short space of time?
Kate: It’s true that by October 2009 we had bought Hanford Dental & Implant Centre, and we ran the two practices side-by-side for about 18 months. We did it because as a team we had our hearts set on providing all-inclusive dental care to our patients, and our original premises just didn’t offer us room for expansion because of its location in a built-up area. With the conversion having gone so well we were motivated to stay on track with our long-term plans; never again will we rest on our laurels when there is so much opportunity out there IF you are able to approach it in the right way.
When we bought the Hanford practice it was mixed, offering NHS dentistry alongside a plan from a company other than yourselves. We knew we would want to switch our provider to Practice Plan at the right time, and we made full use of the on-going support offered by you and the team Josie – as we always have done and will continue to do.
Josie: Presumably this expansion into two premises brought new challenges to the fore for you all. What were they and how did you overcome them?
Kate: Certainly running the two practices side-by-side for a year-and-a-half brought its challenges and that took a lot of organisation. What was interesting and somewhat unexpected is that a significant proportion of our patients at the original practice transferred over to the new one of their own volition. There were a number of reasons for that, the main one seemingly that our new acquisition offered plenty of on-site free parking.
On that note, the biggest decision we had to make was when to move the remaining patients at the original site and the biggest challenge was how we were actually going to do it! The fact that patients were moving over under their own steam helped us to choose our timeline. They showed us when they were ready for change! At the same time as merging the two practices we dropped the plan provider we had inherited with our purchase and moved everyone over to our chosen provider, so there was a lot going on.
“The team’s hard work really paid off; the process went well, and at least 97-98% of patients transferred over.”
As before, letters went out and we were prepared for the onslaught. We also set up open days to help ease the change and to reduce patient anxiety. People in general don’t necessarily like having to travel somewhere new, and the open days allowed them to see where we were and the ample parking without the added pressure many feel when attending a dental appointment. It also served to reassure them that their trusted dental team had all moved over and was ready to welcome them in what were much more modern premises. The team’s hard work really paid off; the process went well, and at least 97-98% of patients transferred over.
Josie: What do you think about your practice nowadays?
Kate: I think we’ve got a very strong practice with a very bright future, thanks in large part not only our dental team, who strongly support us, but also great industry partners such as yourselves.
We have refurbished our premises, and it looks really nice. We are moving forward to incorporate new treatment techniques, including developing our implant business. We are also starting to take referrals from other practices, and our reputation for clinical excellence and a caring service is growing. This is exactly that we set out to do and we couldn’t be happier with how things have gone and where we are going.
There is no doubt that the prospect of making changes is scary and there are challenges along the way. However, if you have vision, determination and a plan in place for your journey you don’t look back, believe me!