Opening your practice on weekends might attract a larger customer base—but when you consider the extra cost involved, John Burfitt asks is it really worth it.
The first thing Dr Lucas Lang of Dentistry Plus and his team do when they arrive for work at their respective dental practices on a Saturday morning is listen to the voicemail messages from patients cancelling appointments because they have changed their weekend plans.
“That is something you have to get used to if you open up on a weekend—people can and do cancel pretty readily,” says Dr Lang.
All three Dentistry Plus practices have been open on alternate Saturdays for the past two years.
Owner Rohit Budhwar of Malvern Family Dental in Melbourne, which is also open on Saturdays, tells a similar story. “People cancelling is the main challenge of being open on the weekend as the failure to attend appointments is high.
“You can have the schedule full of bookings and the staff all ready to work, but then no patients turn up. It gets so frustrating for everyone, and it costs a lot of money.”
Due to these experiences, both Dentistry Plus and Malvern Family Dental have introduced a cancellation fee on weekends. “That can annoy some patients,” concedes Dr Lang, “but you just have to be smarter in the way you operate if you are extending your hours into the weekend.”
The reality is that with more people in the workforce working longer hours, dental practices are feeling the pressure to remain open outside of business hours including on the weekend in order to stay competitive.
Sree Bedadam, owner of Sydney’s Rainbow Dental Practice, which is open seven days, says there is a difference between those patients who visit during the week and those who come on the weekend.
“The patients we see are in three groups. On weekdays, it is local workers and on the weekends, it is families. On Sundays is when the emergency sessions come in—but we are now seeing a trend of some people choosing to come in that day as the rest of the week is so busy.
He continues, “Weekends have been a slow build for us, but what we are finding is people are really pleased to find a dental practice that is open on the weekend, and with that, word of mouth seems to be growing.”
“You can have the schedule full of bookings and the staff all ready to work, but then no patients turn up.” – Rohit Budhwar
There are some key factors that need to be considered when deciding whether to open on the weekend advises dental management consultant Julie Parker.
“It’s all about having an existing demand, having a practice structure set up to do this, and having the staff available to do the hours,” she says.
“If a practice is already happy with their level of business, opening on weekends may not be warranted. If you want to see the practice grow, however, then extending opening hours into the weekend is a very good move.”
Dr Lang of Dentristy Plus believes that if a new practice wants to stand out in their local area, opening on weekends is an excellent marketing strategy.
“It can really set your business apart—you might grab a part of the market that feels they don’t have time for this during the week, but do on the weekend,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, staffing schedules and arranging weekend rosters did not emerge as an issue for any of the practice owners approached for this story. On the contrary, as Julie Parker points out, some dentists actually prefer weekend work and are glad to make some extra money.
“The thing is you must work to maintain your service standards at all times as these patients have the exact same expectations as someone coming in during regular office hours,” she says.
The costs associated with staying open on the weekend do, however, need to be closely monitored. Enough patients need to be coming through the doors in order to more than cover the wages for, typically, a receptionist, the dentist and their assistant.
“It can be a risk and you have to know who will be coming in, and if that pays for all the additional costs,” says Dr Lang.
Malvern Family Dental owner Rohit Budhwar agrees. If a dentist is rostered on along with support staff, budgets and cash flow must be tightly managed and decisions made about viability.
“If all you have are cancellations and then there are no walk-ins, and the dentist and staff are just standing around, that is a waste of money,” he says.
“Some weeks will be better than others, but you need to take a long-term view. If you can make it work, it could be a great way to set your practice apart.
The matter of penalty rates
According to the June 2015 amendments of the Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010, ordinary hours of work for a day worker in a private dental practice are classified as between 7.30am and 9pm Monday to Friday, and between 8am and 4.30pm on Saturday.
For full-time staff, work performed on a Saturday will be paid at the rate of time and a quarter of the employee’s ordinary rate of pay, and work performed on a Sunday will be paid at the rate of time and a half of the employee’s ordinary rate of pay.
For all ordinary hours worked between midnight Friday and midnight Sunday, a day worker will be paid their ordinary hourly rate and an additional 50 per cent loading, while a casual employee who works on a Saturday or Sunday will be paid a loading of 75 per cent for all time worked.
These penalty rates are currently being re-evaluated by the Fair Work Commission’s Four Yearly Review of Modern Awards.
As of May 2016, the review is continuing to look into weekend penalty rates. The current proposal outlines that for all ordinary hours worked between midnight Friday and midnight Sunday, a full-time or part-time employee will be paid 150 per cent of the minimum hourly rate applicable to their classification and pay point.
The other part of the proposal is that a casual employee who works on weekends will be paid 175 per cent of the minimum hourly rate applicable to their classification and pay point for all time worked.
“The thing with weekend work is that staff are usually only working a four-hour day, so the penalty rates are fine and can be accounted for,” says Sree Bedadam. ”We are happy to pay that cost if it means the service is there to the patient.”
Julie Parker adds, “The thing about penalty rates is that they can be a barrier to many practices opening longer hours, but the added production of those additional days will absolutely cover this expense.”