While the growth of corporate dental practices seems to be an unstoppable force, some dentists still strive to be free of external influences. By Kerryn Ramsey
Over the past 10 years, the growth of corporate dental groups has increased dramatically. The corporate business model is a perfect solution for some practitioners and can offer advantages to both dentists and clients.
However, there are other independent practice owners who wish to stay that way. They enjoy running their own business, free from external influences and pressures. The want to keep control over the treatment options they offer, the types of technology they use and how they care and interact with their patients.
One such practitioner is Dr Sam Rogers of Northbridge Dental Clinic in WA. For dentists like Dr Rogers, a corporate business structure is never going to be a good fit. He’s a dentist committed to running his practice without interference or input from a third party. “Corporatisation is all about making profit—a patient’s health needs to be addressed not as a consumer need,” says Dr Rogers. “As an independent practitioner, I have complete freedom in how I manage things. I think that’s very important.”
About every six weeks, Dr Rogers meets up with eight other local independent dentists who are all members of the Independent Dentist Network (IDN). They know each other well and take the opportunity to bounce ideas around.
“We might discuss training, HR or different procedures,” says Dr Rogers. “We also discuss any advances made by corporates on our practices. It’s great to know you’re not alone. And being an independent dental network, we are a group that can counteract the forces that are trying to change the field of dentistry.”
Making sure these practitioners are independent but not isolated, membership of the IDN is a way to maintain a competitive edge while utilising the skills of the network. The IDN was set up in 2017 by Merv Saultry at the request of a number of independent dentists. “They asked me to put together a plan of what was possible,” says Saultry. “They understood that standing alone in today’s market means they don’t have the resources to compete with the marketing, advertising and highly visible locations of the corporates and health funds. If they come together then they can take control of their own industry. It makes much better sense than all the independents flying their own small flags.”
The road to independence
Dr Sam Rogers graduated from the University of Western Australia in 1978 and owned his first private practice in 1980. However, his career has taken many twists and turns over the past 40 years, and his passion for professional independence has always been apparent.
Dr Rogers first worked for a year in Three Springs doing dental work at a government practice, as well as running a mobile dental van to the Aboriginal communities around remote communities north, east and south of Kalgoorlie and not far from the South Australian border. These small towns with a population of just 20 or 30 were accessed by dirt roads in the dental 4WD. Dr Rogers would set up in a room or shed and people would come in from miles around to receive treatment.
“We would have treated hundreds of cases on each trip,” he says. “We treated a lot of periodontal disease, did a lot of extractions and completed simple restorative work.”
When the dedicated dentist returned to Perth, he started a brand new practice in The Hills. At this time, dental therapists and hygienists were starting to be introduced as staff into practices. His clinic was one of the first in WA to adopt this model and free up the dentists to perform more dentistry. The practice had three dentists, three hygienists and a total of 15 staff.
“It was my first time running a practice but I had an older partner, Dr Andrew Graebner, who made things easy,” says Dr Rogers. “I’ve never been a believer in practice managers and don’t use one today. I prefer to rely on my staff to make decisions and avoid an overly bureaucratic set-up. Everything ran smoothly then, as it does today.”
“Corporatisation is all about making profit—a patient’s health needs to be addressed not as a consumer need.”
Dr Sam Rogers, owner, Northbridge Dental Clinic
After the retirement of Dr Graebner, two partners came to the practice, and Dr Rogers stayed at The Hills for a decade until all the partners amicably went their separate ways.
Back in the late ’70s, Dr Rogers was also involved with Aboriginal health in the Western Desert, after meeting the late Ernie Bridge (founder of Unity of First People of Australia). However, it was in early 2000 when Dr Rogers found an opportunity to help Aboriginals again. One of his patients, a former Minster of the WA Government, approached Dr Rogers about delivering better health services to the Aboriginal communities in the Pilbara. One of the priorities was to address the increasing rate of diabetes in the communities.
Dr Rogers’ involvement with Aboriginal communities was a purely after-hours job. One successful initiative was to introduce swimming pools into the regions. The chemicals in the water improved the condition of eyes and ears while the exercise helped with respiratory health. Aboriginal children found they could concentrate much better in school. “While improving dental health was important, we were also addressing lifestyle issues such as diet, exercise and education,” says Dr Rogers. “The program was very successful until the federal government started to interfere in the field.”
There was a reduction in the need for the Flying Doctor as the communities’ health started to improve and took responsibility for themselves, as well as increasing the relevance of the elders and their authority which had been removed with social changes.
This project changed the direction of The Hills practice by implementing a risk analysis of the patients involving their diet, lifestyle as well as dental health.
The value of independence
Determined to be innovative and independent, Dr Rogers spotted a rambling Victorian terrace house, circa 1893, in upmarket Northbridge. He could instantly see the vision of converting this into a large, high-tech practice, using the same business model as his Hills clinic. When his original practice became too busy, he sold it and has based himself in Northbridge ever since, running the practice with his wife Dee.
He was one of the earliest members of the IDN, whose values reflected his own. “The IDN is a common co-brand where members still retain 100 per cent of their own practice,” says Merv Saultry. “We have a brand that can be identified and a simple message for the community—independent dentists are health professionals whose main priority is your health and welfare, not profit.”
The IDN is working hard to get that message out. Saultry and his team want the general public to identify independent dentists as professionals they can trust. “They will provide the best treatment for the patient and build a trusting relationship. When a patient walks into the practice of an independent dentist, the practitioner knows your history and knows who you are.” At present, there are 66 practices signed up as part of the IDN across Australia.
By banding together under the IDN banner, all these practice owners are able to take advantage of a number of resources. If they need to buy equipment, the IDN can place a large order for multiple pieces, getting a better deal and passing the discount onto the dentists. Saultry has engaged a young marketing firm in Brisbane to start working on websites and placing. Already these practice websites are moving up from page six of a Goggle search to page one.
The IDN is letting small practices be competitive in a large market. “The vision of the IDN is much bigger than just marketing,” says Saultry. “There are so many things we can do collectively, utilising the resources that we bring together. We want to take back control of dentistry. We have an extensive code of ethics to which all members must commit. It’s a way to bring the profession back to what it once was, and to make sure that corporates and health funds can’t control or exploit it.”
While many practice owners embrace corporatisation with open arms, there is a proportion of owners who see it as an affront to the way they operate and how they believe the industry should be run. The IDN helps level the playing field and in doing so, gives dentists and patients more choice.