Transitioning to private practice: it’s smiles all round

There’s ‘absolutely no reason’ to delay transitioning to private practice, says Nigel Suggett, dentist and practice owner in Seaham, County Durham.

In 2010, dentist Nigel Suggett, was motivated to buy his practice in Seaham, County Durham by a desire to have full control over his practice and career.

Suggett graduated from Sheffield University in 2006. He then completed a number of post-graduate courses and worked in several associate roles. However, it seemed that he would struggle to apply what he’d learned under the restraints and regulations of the NHS.

‘I realised that I wasn’t the best associate,’ he admits. ‘I was possibly too forceful with my own views, and I found it difficult to not have full control.’

When he bought his practice, now Seaham Smiles, it was 100% NHS. So much so that the previous owner would refer requests for teeth whitening or other cosmetic treatments to neighbouring practices. The premises were also in need of a refresh, so Nigel recruited an associate and carried out a refurbishment.

However, it wasn’t until 2018 that he began to investigate the idea of converting to private practice. At the time, his team was less than enthusiastic about the idea. As Nigel explains: ‘At the time, the practice culture was still relatively NHS, I think.

‘We’re in an area that’s not the most affluent. And I think there was a little bit of reluctance amongst the team as to how well my private conversion would go. I think there was a belief within the team that NHS dentistry was adequate because they hadn’t seen what can be provided privately.’

Introducing a membership plan

Despite the team’s misgivings, Nigel went ahead with the conversion. He decided to introduce a membership plan and chose Practice Plan as his provider. The reason behind this choice might be seen as perverse by some!

‘I decided to go with Practice Plan because, ironically, they gave me the most pessimistic view of what might happen,’ he explains. ‘We spoke with all the big providers, and apart from Practice Plan, they all said, “yes, full conversion of the practice is what’s needed”.

‘I knew in my heart of hearts that wasn’t actually what was needed in 2018. I think times were very, very different then. And in the area that we are in, there was an excess of NHS dentists. We had some dentists who had been with us only for a year or two, so I think in 2018/2019, had we converted them to private, we’d have lost their patients.’

Practice Plan regional support manager, Jayne Gibson, suggested Nigel should be the only dentist to convert at the time. When the time was right, Nigel’s experience could help the rest of the team make the conversion dentist by dentist.

‘The whole of the team are on board’

In 2019 Nigel relinquished his NHS contract and has not looked back since. Having seen how well things have gone, his team are fully behind him.

‘Now the whole of the team are on board, because they’ve seen what can be done privately,’ he says. ‘They’ve seen the patients coming through, they’ve seen the oral health of those patients improve dramatically through having the time with our dental hygienists and also having the time for us as a team to educate them and to help them with their oral health.’

‘Unable to give the patients what he believed was best for them’

As an NHS dentist, Nigel felt his conversations with patients about treatment options were rushed and treatment uptake was low. He also felt he was unable to give the patients what he believed was best for them.

Since going private, he has been able to double the time allotted for oral health examinations. Treatment uptake has improved considerably as he’s been able to fully consent patients and explain the best options for them. He has also been able to bring in treatment coordinators who have been able to facilitate conversations with patients.

This has caused a significant increase in profitability at the practice, which allowed Nigel to carry out a full refurbishment of the premises. The result is a much nicer working environment for the team and pleasanter surroundings for patients.

As Nigel says: ‘It’s a self-perpetuating situation where we’re getting more and more patients coming, and new patients are referring more new patients because the practice is probably the nicest in the area. And that’s all started from my initial conversion over to Practice Plan.’

Positive impact of private practice on patients

Nigel feels his patients have also benefitted from the changes. ‘It’s the extra time that we’ve got as dentists to be able to discuss treatment options, to be able to reinforce oral health messages, and to be able to help the patients, that’s been the biggest thing,’ he says.

‘Ignore the nice building, ignore the better profits. The best thing is my little group of patients that I’ve got, I come in and I know that they’re probably going to be all right, because we’ve got the time to help them help themselves at home.’

He can see how his improved circumstances are influencing his colleagues, too. ‘My stress state being improved has definitely reflected on the rest of the team, especially the dentists. And the dentists can see how much nicer my day is at work than their day is at work, if they’re working within the NHS. And they are now wanting to make that conversion as well.’

The benefits of a membership plan

He also praises the support he has received from Practice Plan, both during the conversion and subsequently. ‘I’d describe working with Practice Plan as really great. I think that the support is brilliant,’ he says.

In addition to benefits such as plan administration, Nigel appreciates the sense of community provided by a membership plan. ‘There is definitely a family atmosphere,’ he explains. ‘They also put on road shows, which is great, so you get to meet like-minded dentists who are either part of the same journey that we are on at the moment or are further along that journey and might be fully private. And the support both from Practice Plan itself, and also from those other dental practices, is great.’

He is also keen to point out that the community includes the whole team and not just practice owners and principals. ‘Both of my managers are part of the practice management group that is supported by Practice Plan. They meet once a month. And if they’ve got any questions, there’s a WhatsApp group that they’ve then got. And they feel part of this little family of Practice Plan, which is really lovely for them.’

‘No hesitation in recommending the move’ to private practice

Having seen the benefits of becoming an independent dentist, Nigel would have no hesitation in recommending the move. ‘I think as long as you are confident in your own abilities as a dentist and you’re looking to provide some more interesting treatments than what can be provided under the National Health Service, then there’s absolutely no reason, especially at this time, not to be going forward.

The arguments against converting over to private, which were that patients might not go with you, I don’t think are valid anymore. There’s much, much more acceptance of private healthcare since COovid-19 has happened. And so, please do it.’

If you’re considering your options away from the NHS and are looking for a provider who will hold your hand through the process whilst moving at a pace that’s right for you, start the conversation with Practice Plan on 01691 684165, or book your one-to-one NHS to private call here.

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