There are many social and lifestyle arguments for hitting the road with your skills and equipment but perhaps the most compelling is the growing untapped market for mobile dentistry, writes Sue Nelson.
We live in an age when many traditional business models are changing and diversifying to meet new markets. Working hours are more flexible, and work itself is more mobile. Dentistry is no exception.
As our population ages, there is a growing need for dentists to go where the work is, rather than expecting the work to come to them—and compact, affordable mobile clinics that can be hitched up to the average family SUV make it easier than ever to do this. For those who enjoy getting out and about, now is the perfect time to adapt to the trend.
Dr Damien Lloyd is a mid-career dentist who recently invested in a single-chair mobile dental clinic, which he hopes will, over time, give him the flexibility to take his work wherever it leads. “I’ve always worked for someone, which has brought a great lifestyle advantage—I work three to four days a week,” he says. “I’ve always had on my radar a way of working that would allow me not to get too consumed with the business as time goes on.”
The great escape
It’s early days for Dr Lloyd, but he hopes mobile dentistry will become a bigger part of his career over time and is looking forward to getting out on the road. “I love being away from cities, love interacting with people—half of my job is dentistry and the other half is just getting to know people and looking after them, and I love that about the job.”
Having a mobile dental business to supplement his day job gives Dr Lloyd the opportunity to get out and reach a different demographic. He anticipates that these will be older people, but has not discounted a range of patients in the future, including in prisons and refuges, from his rounds.
“I love being away from cities, love interacting with people—half of my job is dentistry and the other half is just getting to know people.”—Dr Damien Lloyd, mobile dentist
While tradespeople provide services at the point of location, along with some health professionals—nurses, for example—dentists have been slower to move into this space. Perhaps it is a perception that dental equipment is not as transportable but technology is rapidly changing this.
“We have a range of ways to take treatment on the road,” says Ryan Green, general manager of William Green, a company that has been manufacturing dental units in Australia for 75 years. “It starts from a small suitcase-type of product where you can walk in and perform treatment, all the way through to our latest development which is a virtual clinic on wheels, so once you step inside you wouldn’t know you were anywhere other than a fixed clinic.”
William Green has been making mobile clinics in various forms for state health authorities, including for a train that used to cover vast distances in rural NSW. “We’ve tried to make our latest generation of products accessible and affordable, to allow all dentists to be able to provide this type of service—not just outreach or rural customers, but anyone in metro areas,” says Green.
“There’s a very low capital outlay for the next-generation trailers, and everything is constructed to be lightweight but robust for transport—but we wanted to do that within a budget that would make it viable for a standard dentist to buy the product and hitch it up and take their service to schools, retirement villages and other untapped markets.”
Dr Lloyd is able to provide a service at reasonable cost, because of his low overheads. He is busy consolidating this new sideline and covering his capital outlay this year. Over time, he anticipates that his mobile business will help him to move into the next phase of his career. “I see it as an exciting, simple venture that I run myself,” he says. “I’m responsible for what happens, what I do, where I go. I’m a tradie at heart.”
Meeting the demand
Dr Mark Wotherspoon, who runs a mobile service out of Best St Dental, a fixed dental surgery in Wagga Wagga, sees a yawning hole in the market, driven by changing patient needs. Dr Wotherspoon found that after 30 years of being a GP, many of his long-term patients were becoming too frail to attend his fixed practice. “I found that many of them fell off a treatment cliff,” he says. “These were loyal, regular attendees, and they couldn’t get the treatment they needed. It became too difficult for them, for a range of reasons—dementia, special needs or mobility issues, for example, when they become frail or infirm.”
“There’s a very low capital outlay for the next generation trailers, and everything is constructed to be lightweight but robust for transport.”—Ryan Green, general manager, William Green
Dr Wotherspoon doesn’t think access to mobile dentistry should have to be a last resort: “It should be about choice. It could be a situation where the patient is recovering from cancer. They don’t feel up to going and sitting in somebody’s waiting room; they would like to be seen in the privacy of their own home.”
He sees a growing demographic that will need visiting dentists in coming years. “Most private dentists will make visits to patients who can’t attend their clinics, but it happens in an ad hoc way, and we’re not very well prepared for it. The people who are already in this space are doing an excellent job and the Australian level of care is very high—we’re just not doing enough of it,” he says. “The business model means we need a lot more dentists participating in this work to meet the demand.”
On the road again
The work dentists might plan to do on the road may differ somewhat from the work they might have done in fixed practice; it won’t be crowns, bridges and root canals. “We may go and provide an assessment and a treatment plan—we’ll scale and clean and do small restorations,” says Dr Wotherspoon. “Complicated procedures can then be carried out at a fixed surgery.
“Another service mobile dentists can provide is oral hygiene instruction for carers and family members, to ensure better daily care—it’s an education process.”
Dr Wotherspoon thinks it’s important that the business case stacks up for dentists working on the road. “My advice is to be aware of the optimal times of day to provide the service, to factor in downtime and travel time, be mindful of overheads and outlays, and consider what people want and are prepared to pay for. Just like any other visiting service provider, you need to factor in these costs.”