President & CEO Smile Brands Inc.
As the head of the largest dental support services company in the U.S., what do you think is the biggest challenge facing dentistry today?
Steve Bilt: Dentistry’s biggest challenge was and continues to be that a significant majority of the country underutilizes dental care. This includes people not in care at all and people who aren’t receiving full and adequate care. Between 45-50% of the population doesn’t go to the dentist regularly. It might be that someone gets a diagnosis that a tooth could use an inlay, but he waits. Then he gets a crown diagnosis but he still waits because it doesn’t hurt. Then suddenly he needs a root canal or he loses that tooth.
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Underutilization can also mean people are not getting adequate periodontal care and therefore suffer bone loss then ultimately tooth loss. Or perhaps they are suffering from other illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, that can stem from poor oral health. Underutilization could even mean not getting an oral cancer screening which will obviously have catastrophic results.
What are the barriers to people seeking dental care and what do Smile Brands affiliated offices offer patients to increase utilization of dental care?
Steve Bilt: One barrier is that private practice dentists have to do it all. They have to be CEOs, financiers, marketers, experts on real estate and demographics, and more. Those activities distract a dentist from delivering the best dental care possible. Smile Brands has developed a model that includes understanding a market so we can help the dentist land in a location that’s going to be best suited to him or her. We find and develop that location and provide the financing to complete it. We develop marketing material to attract patients and provide call center support. We also handle billing and collections and offer patients financing – all of which frees the practitioner to focus on dentistry.
What makes the Smile Brands business model attractive to dentists?
Steve Bilt: The first time you go into business you better be prepared to take a few lumps. Some dentists start as an associate in a private practice and work with a more experienced dentist to learn the business aspects of running a practice. If the goal is to be in a private practice, that model has worked well for many years. Smile Brands has spent nearly 15 years and tens of millions of dollars learning and improving the business support side of dentistry. It’s a learning curve that some dentists want to climb themselves, but other dentists say, “You know what? Smile Brands has developed a package of support services that allows me to focus on dentistry. That means I can serve a middle market that I probably couldn’t efficiently serve if I were doing it all myself.” Smile Brands lowers the risk of starting out in a dental practice so providers can be more predictably successful. Why is that? Because there are elements of risk in any business; to the extent we can take away some of those variables, your chance of success improves. The Smile Brands model works really, really well and it’s really predictable. It allows doctors to focus on dentistry and oral hygiene and serve the patients well, then we limit the risk on the downside because of the support services we provide and what results, mathematically, is a much higher chance the dentist will be successful. In addition, Smile Brands provides forums for continuing education and best practice sharing, and facilitates mentoring. Plus, affiliated practices offer a career path because these locations have multiple job layers for doctors to grow in their career.
What do you think the most significant changes to dentistry will be over the next 5 – 10 years?
Steve Bilt: First, there are many of ways to think about change. There’s the future of technology in the dental space and all the clinical innovations that are on the way. But there are many people far more qualified than I am to opine on those changes.
Today more dentists are supported by business organizations that allow them to better define their niche and target the middle market without competing, per se, with other dentists. The Smile Brands model is specifically designed to support the needs of a middle market consumer who is price sensitive or may need financing. We’ve designed our support model to enable the dentist to effectively and profitably reach a market that’s unserved or underserved. This shift in how dentistry is provided could raise the number of people in regular care from 50% to perhaps 90% someday. And that’s the dream – to make sure patients are served, and that dentistry is accessible to them so they can stay in regular dental care.
What does the future, or at least the next decade, hold for Smile Brands?
Steve Bilt: First, it’s probably more informative to look back 5 to 10 years at where we’ve come from. A decade ago, we were supporting 45 offices – today there are 350. Back then, we were just in three states on the West Coast – now we’re all across the country. Plenty will change around the technology in the offices – information systems; digital radiography; impressions and milling; laser technology – it’ll be dramatic. As our footprint grows, there will be more places for patients to access regular care, plus have easier access to specialty services as these become more fully integrated with the dental office teams. There will also be innovations to improve how the doctor and patient interact. It’s hard to predict what those might be but it will likely involve PDAs or smart phones with access to patient records and other useful information. Over time, this advanced communication will improve both the patient’s understanding of their care and their interactions with their providers. Those are all things that Smile Brands will help facilitate and that will be a very powerful experience.
A different type of change is how the business of dentistry will change. Historically, dentistry has been accessed through the sole practitioner model and that’s a great model. But dentistry is a $120 billion space today, a huge healthcare sector. Over the next 5 to 10 years, you’re going to see more business models emerging to serve niche segments of the market. For an example of this, look at retail. There are retailers that focus specifically on the high-end consumer and retailers that target the discount consumer, and they don’t compete. You don’t hear debate in the Nordstrom boardroom over how they’re going to reach the Walmart customer, and conversely, Walmart isn’t wondering how they’re going to capture the Nordstrom customer. www.northtexasdentistry.com
NORTH TEXAS DENTISTRY