Easy money—patient payment plans

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patient payment plans

The smart use of patient payment plans can help the cashflow of dental practices while also ensuring that client care stays top of mind. Cameron Cooper reports

Like all good dentists, Dr Craig Duval wants his patients to receive the best possible treatment regardless of any financial pressures.

For this reason, his Sherwood Dental practice in south-west Brisbane offers a range of payment plans for services ranging in price from about $250 to thousands of dollars.

“It just gives patients a better chance to complete the treatments they want,” Dr Duval says. “In the past it used to be only the pushy salesman-type dentist who offered them, but now I’ve seen that a lot of ethical dentists offer such plans and that encouraged me to do it, too.”

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Patients across all income levels have taken up the finance plans, with Dr Duval insisting on using providers that offer interest-free terms.

“It’s not like some of the providers out there that if you don’t make all your payments within the [deadline] you’re hit with an exorbitant interest rate. I never wanted that for my patients. I wanted a solution for the practice, but one that looked after patients as well.”

Affordable solutions

A range of Australian providers offer affordable ways for patients to spread the costs of their orthodontic and dental treatments over a period of months or years. They typically charge a small fee per patient, while the service minimises the time dentists might otherwise waste on billing patients and following up arrears.

DentiCare is one of the largest providers, working with about 2700 practices across Australia and it has more than 15 years’ experience providing and managing payment plans. David Cathie, managing director of DentiCare, says practices can tailor a payment plan to suit each patient, rather than shoehorning them into a particular amount, time and risk matrix.

“A large single [dental] cost can often be a barrier for patients, however spreading that same cost over time to suit the consumer’s cashflow has been proven to increase treatment acceptance,” he says.

A recent DentiCare survey found that 79 per cent of respondents would not have been able to proceed with treatment without a payment plan, while associated research indicated that 94.3 per cent of practices experienced an increase in treatment acceptance.

“[Such a] service also eliminates the risk of missed payments, arrears and bad debt,” Cathie says.  

Taking about 90 minutes, DentiCare provides an on-boarding process so that all practice team members have a complete understanding of the payment plan service when it is rolled out, along with ongoing support.

“As a clinician first but very much a business owner, it still has to make business sense that these options we offer the patients will work for the business.” 
Dr Craig Duval, owner, Sherwood Dental

At his practice, Dr Duval uses DentiCare as a direct-debit solution, along with additional credit options such as MySmilePlan and Certegy Ezi-Pay, and weighs up which plan to use depending on desired payment speeds and overall treatment costs. While he must pay a commission on each plan, he “puts it down to a business expense”. Regardless of the provider dentists use, Dr Duval says it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of each plan.

“As a clinician first but very much a business owner, it still has to make business sense that these options we offer the patients will work for the business.”

Chasing debts 

In rare cases where patients fail to pay their dental bills, practices could be forced to chase payments using either internal resources or those of a debt-collection agency.

Julie Lamers, general manager of Kearley Lewis, which collects debts for dentists and other medical businesses, says practice owners and staff are often reluctant to make such tough calls to patients, or they may lack the experience to communicate with clients in a way that gets results.

“There could be one person who does all the invoicing and manages the accounts, but they don’t have the time to be on the phone chasing debtors. It’s definitely a resourcing issue.”

Lamers says a structured step-by-step debt-recovery strategy gets the best results. Simply picking up the phone and cold-calling a late payer is unlikely to work. So before calling, employees should have all the relevant patient information in front of them as this will give them confidence and help prevent the client from dominating the call or making excuses. 

Lamers says dental debts tend to be relatively small, and can often be the result of a misunderstanding.

“Sometimes there’s just some confusion because people are claiming on their private health and they don’t realise there’s a gap.”

If practices find it too daunting to do their own debt recovery, Lamers says it makes sense to engage an experienced debt-recovery agency that can send letters to clients, make calls or send SMS messages on behalf of the practice, or issue a solicitor’s letter if need be.

“This lets you get back to running your business,” notes Lamers, who says that in about 40 per cent to half of all medical cases, an initial letter is sufficient for most patients to clear a debt.

Win-win outcome

According to Cathie, tailored payment plans that are professionally managed are a key element to a dental practice’s treatment acceptance, productivity and cashflow, allowing practice staff to focus on treatments and patient care.

“This simply means more dentistry is delivered per hour in the practice, and the front desk and office staff are not spending any time following up or discussing payment,” he says. “It’s a win for the patient first and foremost, and a win for the practice.”

At Sherwood Dental, Dr Duval says it is crucial to outline all elements of a patient finance plan, otherwise there can be “surprises with the small print”, or a risk of being perceived to be promoting costly treatments at the expense of clients. As with any element of business, he says delivery of patient finance solutions requires homework on the part of the practice owners and managers.

“It doesn’t matter how good you are as a clinician, if your business fails you can’t be a clinician.” 

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