NHS to private: closing the income gap more quickly

NHS to private: closing the income gap more quickly

Zoe Close reflects on how the time taken to close the gap between NHS and plan income when introducing a plan is now much shorter than in years gone by.

There have been many changes over the 30 or so years I have been working in the dental industry. The contract changes in the early 1990s and 2006 saw many dentists choosing to leave the NHS. However the rate at which they have been leaving post-COVID is like nothing I have witnessed before.

The COVID backlog, people reassessing what was important to them after the restrictions had given them a taste of life lived at a slower pace and the resulting recruitment crisis, meant people started handing back their contracts in droves. Each dentist that moved to private practice left hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of NHS patients searching for a new provider. This added to the difficulty many were already experiencing in getting an appointment with a dentist.

One year income gap now shortened

In years gone by, especially pre-pandemic when dentists were contemplating introducing a membership plan, we would let them know that it could take up to 12 months for the plan fees to have built up to a level where it replaced their NHS income. We would advise them to ensure they had a buffer to plug the gap and help them through that time.

Four years on from the pandemic lockdowns, the dental landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. There has been a noticeable shift in the attitudes of patients towards private dentistry. After seeing so many other people struggling to get access to dental treatment, patients in greater numbers accept that the only way to guarantee regular oral healthcare is to pay privately. So, our advice regarding the income gap is changing.

Each conversion, whether full or partial, makes life easier for the next. As more dentists reduce or step away from their NHS commitments altogether, competition for those remaining NHS appointments gets keener. This makes private dentistry much more attractive.

Many patients now see membership plans as a way of, not only spreading the cost, but also of making sure they will be seen regularly. They are prepared to sign up to their dentist’s plan as they do genuinely see it as a way of becoming members of the practice. They want the certainty of being seen regularly, especially in an emergency.

Early sign-up

This has meant over the past year or so we have seen plenty of examples of practices where patients are so willing to sign up to a plan that the practice fills its books within weeks, rather than months. In one case a practice in Northamptonshire signed up 6,000 patients in just eight weeks. Previously, we would have suggested waiting until the contract had been handed back before signing up patients. Now, to help practices cope with this increased interest in private dentistry, we encourage them to start signing up patients as soon as the first letter informing them of the change hits patients’ doormats. 

The willingness of patients to sign up to a membership plan now means that the income gap is filled sooner. There are so many examples where patients have been so willing to sign up to a plan that the practice’s books have been filled within two to three months. It now seems to be the rule rather than the exception. 

This is great news for practices. The concern they once may have had about building up sufficient plan income to compensate for the loss of their NHS monthly payments is no longer valid. With hundreds and thousands of patients only too eager to sign up to plan, cashflow is likely to be affected for a much shorter period of time than previously.

‘Patients are far more prepared to pay for private dentistry’

Like many other of the concerns dentists may have expressed about handing back an NHS contract, the need to cover the lost income during the first year is now no longer the issue it once was. Patients are far more prepared to pay for private dentistry than they ever were before. They are investing in their oral health by signing up to a membership plan. 

Many of the perceived risks of introducing private dentistry into your practice either no longer apply or have diminished. Any hopes people may have harboured that the government’s long-awaited dental recovery plan would be the answer to all NHS dentistry’s problems will have been dashed when it was published.

As the BDA’s Shawn Charlwood said: ‘This “recovery plan” is not worthy of the title. It won’t halt the exodus from the workforce or offer hope to millions struggling to access care. Nothing here meets government’s stated ambitions, or makes this service fit for the future.’

Perhaps now is the time to think about introducing private dentistry into your practice. 

If you’d like to hear the views of industry leaders on the future of dentistry, join us at the Dental Business Theatre, sponsored by Practice Plan, at Dentistry Show Birmingham on 17 and 18 May.

If you’re considering your options away from the NHS and are looking for a plan provider who will hold your hand through the process at a pace that’s right for you, why not start the conversation with Practice Plan on 01691 684165 or book your one-to-one NHS to private call today at: practiceplan.co.uk/nhsvirtual.

For more information visit practiceplan.co.uk/nhs.

Attending Dentistry Show Birmingham 17-18 May? Join us on stand K50!

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