We are all fighting the battle of reduced profit as insurance companies continue to decrease reimbursements around the U.S. for independent dental practitioners. Membership plans have become a very effective alternative, and that is even more the case due to the economic impact of this pandemic.

For the first time, dental practices across the country watched their collections drop to near zero overnight -- except those practices with membership plans. They still had a steady, predictable amount of income coming in, even though they couldn't treat patients.

While many practices have already incorporated membership plans into their practice, they have done so with limited success as they typically only enroll 5% to 10% of their patient base. The lack of success is often attributable to lack of expertise in structuring and pricing the right set of patient plans, seamlessly implementing these plans into the practice, and effectively marketing these programs.

For many dentists, the question is, what exactly are membership plans and how do they work? And what are the advantages and disadvantages? Membership plans have been around for a while in many forms, but in recent years they have become much more refined.

A membership plan is a program that dentists can sell to their patients that fully covers a specified amount of care and then offers a discount on additional types of treatments. The practices have full control to design their plans to support their treatment philosophy while offering their patients reduced costs without mandates, deductibles, or limitations on procedures. Dentists and patients work together to establish a personalized plan to ensure they maximize their oral health.

Dentist appointment calendar with a tooth brush on the calendar.
There are three big advantages to dental membership plans:

1. Predictable income

The more patients you enroll, the more monthly income you will have from the plans. This is why an effective system of patient enrollment is so important. Not all membership companies offer support in this area, so it falls completely on the practice to figure out how to accomplish this. This is the No. 1 reason practices don't realize the full benefit of their plan.

Some companies, by contrast, offer complete support from the very beginning, knowing that effective enrollment is essential. They take you step by step, making sure the pricing is ideal for you and the accounting is set up properly, and they give you the tools to efficiently market and promote your plan. This is critical for plan success.

2. Customization and control

You can tailor plans to fit your practice and the needs of your patient base, but because plans are customizable, you need help to do it properly. Plan for Health, for example, analyzes the usual, customary, and reasonable (UCR) costs in your area and within your practice and creates a cost analysis proposal to design a plan that suits you and your patients. Utilizing this flexibility is critical. You don't want a cookie-cutter approach, as every practice is unique. With Plan for Health, you can even do multiple tiers in your program, such as child, adult, and periodontal plans.

3. Patient loyalty

Finally, the plan is meant to be used at your practice, and your practice only. This creates patient loyalty and also reduces no-shows because the patient has already prepaid for some of the treatments.

This brings up another factor: the design of the plan. Look for a plan that recommends covering three exams and cleanings a year, rather than two, as part of your program. Most practice consultants will tell you that hygiene drives production. Offering three preventive appointments virtually guarantees the patient will make at least two of them. Tightening recall is one of the fundamentals of practice growth, and the right membership plan design can drive that.

The other important factor when looking at membership plan solution providers is how they charge. Most plans charge per enrolled patient, which means that the more successful you are at enrolling patients, the more of a monthly administrative fee you will pay. Some practices are shocked to find they are paying tens of thousands of dollars in those fees per year.

Look for an alternative that charges a flat solution fee. That way, you know your cost to administrate and aren't punished for increasing your enrollment and plan revenue.

As with most services, you need a plan with good support, because the whole point is utilization, ideally by hundreds of patients. Proper guidance on setup and implementation is key, but maximizing enrollment is the most important part. This requires getting the team on board, as they will often be explaining it to patients. It also requires a systematic approach to promotion, along with all the materials necessary to inform and enroll patients.

Your plan is something you can promote within your office, on your website, in your Google and Yelp profiles, or in any other advertising that you do. Also, be aware that more people will be moving into a freelance economy. It's estimated that 50% of the U.S. workforce will be independent contractors by 2025, and the COVID-19 pandemic has likely accelerated that by two years. These people will need some type of dental plan, as they have no coverage from employment.

Now is the time to seriously consider a membership plan for your practice. Make sure it has a flat monthly charge. Most of all, support has to be there, from implementation to marketing and promotion.

It's very important to set the accounting up properly in your practice management software. Make sure you can track appointments and providers for each treatment that was performed as part of the plan. A practice coach can guide you and support you in setting up your plan.

A good membership plan allows you to focus on the oral wellness of your patients, rather than being trapped in the dictates of their dental coverage, and the patient doesn't have to deal with maximums, deductibles, or exclusions, just a healthy smile. That, in itself, is a huge benefit.

As the director of TruBlu's Plan for Health Oral Wellness Membership Program, Natalie McCarty brings several years of dental membership program experience as well as her years as an executive coach with Fortune Management.

Fred Joyal is a renowned speaker, author, and consultant on dental marketing. He is the co-founder of 1-800-DENTIST and author of two best-selling books, Everything is Marketing and Becoming Remarkable.

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