What should my hours of operation be?

If you’re running a dental clinic, your hours of operation can make all the difference between profit and loss. By Louise Baxter

In the medical field, emergency situations are par for the course and time is of the essence. There’s often a sense of urgency when seeking care for a painful condition—and for this reason, community expectations of availability tend to be higher than for non-medical businesses.

In our fast-paced modern landscape with longer work hours, there is increasing demand from patients for after-hours availability and access to swift treatment. So, how do you ensure your business hours offer the best service to your customers?

The first step is looking at the needs of your patient base. If you’re a dentist in the CBD of a major city, you will be accessible to office workers, so opening before and after the standard nine-to-five work day will likely be useful for your patients. Conversely, if you are based in an area with a more senior demographic, you may find traditional business hours a better fit.

Once you’re clear on the service you would like to provide, it’s important to check out the competition. If you’re close to a major hospital dental department or emergency dentist, you may want to decide if it’s necessary for your practice to ‘keep up’ or adopt a different operating structure.

Dr Phillip Palmer, founder and chair of dental practice management company Prime Practice, says extended hours may appear to be a costly undertaking but can actually be an efficient strategy to maximise your investment.

“There’s a lot of competition with dental practices and extending your opening hours can expand your client base,” Dr Palmer says. “I myself had a practice in the middle of the [Sydney] CBD and decided to try it. Together with a partner, we shared the hours of 7am-7pm, working in shifts. It worked very well. You’re getting extended use of your facilities, such as equipment and rent on the premises, because there’s no extra costs involved.

“You’re already paying for them. So you can decrease your overheads as a percentage of your turnover if you attract patients during these hours. Obviously there’s more wage costs if you’re opening longer hours but overall, the practice overheads as a percentage are going to reduce.

“An equivalent is one taxi, two drivers. You hardly ever see a taxi that is working from only 9am to 5pm. And that’s just talking the cost of a car.”

Dr Palmer says a split-shift system also offers more flexibility for dentists and support staff in terms of their working day, and after-hours availability can work with just one dentist. “You could even manage it with one practitioner. He or she could come in at 1pm and have the morning off, or leave at 2pm after starting early,” Dr Palmer says. “No matter what, it’s about being available at those different times for the patients’ needs.

“There’s an awful lot of people who have to organise themselves to see a dentist. They either have to take time off work or organise a babysitter and often that’s not convenient between 9am and 5pm. So a practice can attract a market that’s not already being attracted, especially in the suburbs.”

Available 24/7

Niddrie Dental Clinic, in Melbourne’s north-west, is one such practice that offers extended hours in the suburbs—but then goes a step further by offering 24/7 emergency appointments. Whether for an agonising toothache, abscess, broken tooth or other dental trauma, patients can call and obtain care at any time of day, even on public holidays.

There’s a lot of competition with dental practices and extending your opening hours can expand your client base.”—Dr Phillip Palmer, founder, Prime Practice

Dental assistant Sangeetha Premkumar says the practice has set opening hours of 10am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday, with emergencies only on Sundays and after-hours appointments available on request. The system works by having a dental assistant rostered on after hours, and will take any emergency calls and open up the clinic for patients as needed, “even if it’s 1 or 2am”, she says.

Principal dentist Dr Narinder Singh previously worked on rotation at a few clinics and only did after hours at Niddrie. He got so many calls that when he became the lead practitioner, he continued the service.

Set times

Priyanka Sethi Berani, co-founder and managing partner at Healthy Smiles Dental Group, a cosmetic dental clinic in Melbourne’s east, says their opening times work well for patients and staff, offering flexibility with one late night midweek and availability on Saturdays.

The practice is open 8.30am-6pm on weekdays, except Wednesdays (9am-7pm), and Saturdays (9am-3pm).

“During the week it’s a long shift, but it gives our patients the option to come after work. It can be hard to get in during the day and on weekends, especially with children,” Berani says.

“But there are a lot of emergency dental practices catering to that particular service, so we always give a referral to them, if needed. Dentists that are working late have kids and commitments too, so it’s nice for them to have that time.”

Making it work

Successfully transitioning to extended hours requires a scheduled commitment and a trial period of at least six months, says Dr Palmer. This gives staff time to adjust, allows management to assess the success of the ‘experiment’, and for current and future patients to embrace the service.

“You have to commit to advertising and communicating your new hours,” he says. “Just opening up your book and waiting for people to show up is unlikely to get you very far.”

Once again, take a look at how your competitors do it. Spread the word. Promote your new hours on social media and your website, if applicable. Put up posters in the waiting room and ask your front-desk staff to inform patients in person and over the phone. If you’re aiming for extended hours to be your point of difference, make sure people know about it. 

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