A Dental Supply Company Innovating Beyond Patient Treatment

August 10, 2018

New companies and technologies are revolutionizing dental practice efficiency. We are living in an age of unprecedented technological innovation. Today’s communication technologies were science fiction just a few short years ago. Companies like Uber and Lyft have reshaped local transportation, and food shopping and delivery may soon make the grocery store as we know it obsolete. Digital native brands have cropped up across industries, from eyewear to men’s grooming to costume jewelry. And, of course, commerce continues its seemingly inexorable march online as e-commerce increasingly dominates sales. Voice-assisted operating systems and machine learning technologies are on the rise, promising even greater change in the coming decade.

Health care is not immune to this digital transformation. Thanks to new technologies, broad stroke policy changes, and boots-on-the-ground innovators, the healthcare system is moving from one where people interact with care episodically and reactively—when something is wrong, they might go see the doctor— towards proactive, predictive, and personalized care. New tools are helping practitioners and service providers be more efficient and effective within the office, clinical, and hospital settings. One day, health care will come to patients before they even know they have a problem, and it will do so far more efficiently than today. Numerous entrepreneurs are tackling these business innovation challenges. They are building new products and services to help traditional healthcare providers adapt to the quickly changing healthcare landscape, leading to better patient care as well as patient and provider cost savings.

Many of these startups are part of MATTER, the Chicago-based healthcare technology incubator. MATTER opened its doors in 2015 with the thesis that new products and technologies in the healthcare space can be developed and commercialized faster if the right people from across the industry (and beyond) work together. The MATTER community now includes more than 200 cutting-edge startups from around the world working together with 70 hospitals and health systems, universities, and industry-leading companies. MATTER equips entrepreneurs with the tools they need to be successful, including a curriculum built for healthcare innovators and mentoring programs designed to help startups solve complex problems. The incubator also helps clinicians and innovators from established organizations think and problem-solve like entrepreneurs, so they are better able to collaborate with startups and rapidly adopt new ideas and technologies.

Last year alone, MATTER startups —with new solutions spanning the healthcare ecosystem—generated $71 million in revenue and raised more than $146 million in financing. Virtually every sector of health care is changing, and dentistry is no exception.

MATTER is home to Supply Clinic, the online marketplace for dental supplies that is bringing online shopping and price comparing to the industry.

Dr. Scott Drucker (one of the authors of this piece) realized there was a problem in the market when he first needed to buy dental supplies as a periodontics resident. After comparing “discounted” prices quoted by the large distributors’ sales representatives to the prices available online, Dr. Drucker realized that the average dentist could save thousands of dollars a year if only there were a way to shop more efficiently. And so Supply Clinic was born: Authorized sellers can list their products on the site, and customers can compare products and pricing and buy from multiple sellers in a single checkout. Sellers ship their products directly to the customer.

Supply Clinic is only one of many newcomers bringing efficiencies to the dental offices. Discussions about dental innovation tend to center on the companies and technologies focused on new patient treatments: the Pinhole Surgical Technique, Millennium Dental Technologies laser, and intraoral digital scanners are just a few examples of the many paradigms shifting technologies that promise to dramatically improve patient care. Amidst this focus on more procedure-impacting innovations, novel front-end (patient-facing) and back-end (operations-oriented) technologies are often overlooked. But these improvements can have more immediate effect on the finances of a dental office, and can do so for far less than a $30,000 or $100,000 piece of equipment.

Front-end Innovations

Innovative new companies have emerged in the past decade to streamline patient acquisition, patient retention, and patient treatment financing. These startups are all helping small, independent practices become more efficient and maximize profit without sacrificing patient care. The first challenge for any office is getting patients to walk in the door to seek healthcare services. In a highly commoditized and increasingly competitive business such as dentistry, this challenge is more poignant than ever. A number of companies have arisen in recent years to tackle this precise issue. Two notable solutions in the dental space are Patient Prism and Banyan. Patient Prism employs artificial intelligence to identify failed opportunities on the phone, helping to minimize phone leakage and maximize the pool of patients that walk in the door. Banyan helps create a tailored online impression of dental practices, and build patient trust online via social media.

Acquiring a patient is just the first step toward a long and successful dentist-patient relationship. Other technologies assist with patient retention, ensuring that patients follow up to receive any necessary care and continue to take proper care of their teeth, including receiving preventive cleanings from their dentist. Customer engagement and retention is hardly a challenge unique to dentistry, so these solutions are often non-industry specific. Email services such as Constant Contact and MailChimp lead the pack in follow-up email campaigns. Social media staples from Facebook to Snapchat facilitate patient engagement. Solutions like Banyan (mentioned above) and BirdEye (which also facilitates a practice’s online presence and patient engagement) further minimize patient churn. Banyan, for instance, automatically pings current patients for Google and Facebook reviews, further strengthening a practice’s online presence and increasing patient engagement post-visit.

Once a patient is in the door, dental offices need to maximize the patient’s visit, from both a customer and practice perspective. Developments in treatment modalities for patients are best left to another standalone article dedicated to them; they are numerous and groundbreaking in their own right. Nonetheless, once patients are seen, they must pay for their visit, and be able to afford any follow-up treatment that is required based on the dentist’s diagnosis and suggested treatment plan. And all too often, the high price tag of dental treatment scares patients away from signing up for the treatment they so desperately need.

This is precisely why some companies have developed new patient financing solutions. Patients may not be able to afford a several-thousand-dollar dentist visit at once but can do so if put on a tailored, individual financing plan. CareCredit was the first to make an impact for dental patients and now other competitors like LendingClub and GreenSky have emerged in the space. Each takes a unique approach to commission structure (for dentists) and payment plans (for patients), but all provide patients with access to third-party financing, which generally allows for higher treatment plan acceptance and ultimately better dental care.

Back-End Developments

The back end of a dental office has similarly seen a plethora of new technologies crop up. The most high profile of these cutting-edge solutions aim to improve practice management software, offer teledentistry, and lower the cost and effort of acquiring supplies.

Dental practices have come to rely on practice management software for everything from marking which teeth need further attention to properly billing patients and their appropriate insurance. Most practices rely on one of the two dominant software solutions, owned respectively by one of the two largest dental supply distributors. But these solutions have not aged with grace, opening the door to a host of startups building newer, more holistic solutions. CareStack is a prime example. It is an all-in-one platform on the cloud that combines dental practice management, patient engagement, practice marketing, and data analytics.

Even more radical changes are underway in the dental office. Many dental offices of the future will not have a brick and mortar office where patients are seen and treated. Tens of millions of patients across the United States simply cannot access in-person care with the regularity they need for truly preventive care. (And hundreds of millions, if not billions, of individuals across the globe lack access to in-person dental care.) The solution may very well lie in teledentistry.

Teledentistry typically involves hygienists or midlevel providers traveling to underserved areas with mobile clinics. These providers perform a preliminary examination, take radiographs and photos, and screen their patients for oral cancer. Often, patients are treated on the spot with cleanings and fluoride varnish (unless more substantial periodontal treatment is necessary) and given oral hygiene instruction. The patient data is sent to a dentist working remotely, who may then make a treatment plan for the patient, which may be completed by the on-site provider, depending on local laws and regulations. Companies like Virtudent are paving the path in the teledental world, and this treatment modality is gaining in popularity throughout the country.

Even seemingly staid back-office tasks are not immune to disruption. Dental supplies purchasing, for instance, is being revolutionized by nontraditional online channels. As mentioned, Supply Clinic is an online marketplace for dental supplies. The site brings together more than 100 distributors and manufacturers, who compete on price and service for dentists’ business. Dental offices can order from a number of sources in a single checkout, experiencing the convenience of one-stop shopping while paying the prices that discount distributors typically charge. Other features further streamline supply ordering and management far beyond what large distributors offer. And, of course, Supply Clinic allows only authorized sources, meaning dentists can rest assured they are not purchasing gray market products on the site.

Even though dozens of new technologies offer increasing efficiency and savings for the average dental office, too many offices do not make adequate use of them. This is where Dental Service Organizations (DSOs) may help. DSOs typically take over the business management of a dental practice (often buying them in the process), and increase office efficiency while allowing dental professionals to continue treating patients. While some DSOs are controversial for potentially lowering the quality of care to maximize profits, most of them do successfully incorporate new technologies in the back office to increase efficiency.

Dental offices are not the only ones collaborating with companies to adopt new solutions to operational challenges. In the MATTER community, startups are also helping clinics, hospitals, and health systems become more patient-friendly. TapCloud’s mobile platform connects patients and care teams between visits, making providers more operationally efficient; Fibroblast’s platform allows hospitals and other provider systems to better manage referrals and prevent patient leakage; and Ascendco Health’s technology helps hospitals efficiently manage their surgical inventory. Technologies to help improve practice and patient management are flourishing. In an increasingly competitive environment, practices would be wise to assess and utilize these tools to improve operations while shifting their attention back to providing excellent care to patients. It is now easier than ever to optimize new patient flow into the office, facilitate treatment plan acceptance, and retain patients during and after treatment, all while simultaneously cutting overhead costs.

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