Practice Preservation; A 10-point primer on dealing with a dental office emergency

Death and disability can strike without warning. Even when aware of a developing disability, many dentists have yet to make adequate preparations for such a situation. And most are even less prepared when it comes to their own mortality.

Our research indicates that dentists rarely leave written instructions for the benefit of family, advisors or staff. An emergency plan is essential and clear procedures should be in place. If implemented quickly, these procedures can preserve the ongoing viability, salability and staff of a dental practice. Better safe than sorry. Keep this info with your office manual and your will. In fact, such “practice preservation” is essentially a “will” for your dental practice.

The Dental Office Emergency Plan

  1. The first priority is to secure the practice and maintain the appointment schedule. This means an immediate search for a locum dentist to keep the practice running. This ensures that income is generated to pay for overhead and the temporary dentist. Finding a locum is much easier now than in the past through resources like the classified section of dental magazines and dental association websites. Most brokers know dentists who have sold their practices specifically to work as a locum.
  2. Go with an experienced professional locum who can successfully manage any transition. While help offered by neighbouring dentists may be sincere, patients could end up transferring permanently, resulting in a potential patient exodus while the disabled owner is recovering or before a new owner is found.
  3. Patients scheduled for appointments should be notified of the situation as soon as possible by phone. A sample script: “I’m calling to inform you that Dr. ____ has had an accident (or other) and he/she will be away from the office for a period of time (time of recovery, if known).” Or, if the owner has died “We are very sad to inform you that Dr. ____ has passed away.” Follow either one of these opening statements with “We assure you that the office will remain open and your appointment(s) will be honoured. We have made arrangements for a qualified dentist (mention locum name and years of experience), to attend to your ongoing dental care. As always, our regular staff (mention names) will continue to be here to assist Dr. ____ (locum name) with your dental care.” Make phone calls only after the locum is secured, as vague information may only unnerve the patient.
  4. It is not necessary to place a notice in the paper or send letters to patients. The new owner (if applicable) should do this only when he/she takes over. A phone call to scheduled patients (one week at a time) is enough in the short term.
  5. The outgoing message on the office answering machine should not be changed until facts and arrangements are settled. In the case of a sudden death, update the message only when the locum dentist’s name is known. This demonstrates an organized practice.
  6. If the practice must be sold, the sales process should commence at the same time as the locum search. In today’s market, a buyer can be identified within weeks and the crisis resolved quickly.
  7. If there are standing orders with hygiene appointments, these can carry on as scheduled while the locum dentist is being identified. Notify patients in advance that their regular dentist will not be there for the recall/recare examination.
  8. Maintain regular office hours as much as possible. A reduction in hours may cause valuable staff to seek other opportunities. Retain a sense of normality and viability by keeping staff busy with long-overdue projects, such as recall program updating.
  9. A positive attitude when speaking with patients is essential. Assure them that the practice will continue as per usual. Avoid negative terminology such as “the doctor is no longer here” or “the doctor is very sick.” This implies a loss that patients may focus on. Instead, say “Dr. ____ will return soon and Dr. ____ (locum name) is a wonderful person.” Show confidence in the temporary dentist’s ability. Long, rambling explanations confuse patients and reveal a lack of organization.
  10. In the event of death, the spouse, lawyer or accountant is typically called upon to manage the financial affairs. Whoever’s in charge should arrange for an appraisal so the practice can be immediately put up for sale.

If a dentist suffers a tragedy, this 10-point emergency plan will help to keep the practice viable by preserving the employment of staff, the patients’ ongoing care and the all-important goodwill value of the business.