Smile Partners was founded to provide strategic business and management support to orthodontists and their practices. The group now owns, manages, and advises 35 orthodontic clinics across the country.
Chief Operating Officer, Andy Yeomans, says that Smile Partners has a strong growth focus, and amid a changing operating and competitive landscape, the team are finding new ways to achieve it.
Andy says that beyond the macroeconomic headwinds, there are other factors impacting patient demand. In response, Smile Partners is implementing strategies to attract new patients and set their practices apart through superior patient and staff experiences.
“We’re a service business, so the patient experience is all-important,” Andy says. “All orthodontic specialists in Australia will have similar training, but the difference is the experience.”
Some of these initiatives have the added benefit of driving operational efficiencies and reducing costs, an area that remains a focus for Smile Partners.
Shifting demand drivers
Andy says one role Smile Partners plays is helping its practices to differentiate and efficiently turn “leads into consults and consults into starts. That’s what drives our business”.
In the current environment, this includes offsetting any weakness in patient demand to drive revenue while mitigating rising costs without passing them on to patients.
The changing competitive landscape needs to be considered, according to Andy. He says that dentists performing orthodontic treatments can be a source of competition, particularly where relatively simple procedures can be performed at a lower cost to the patient.
Andy also notes the emergence of direct-to-consumer models targeting people focused on aesthetic treatments, adding further to general price sensitivity. “We don’t see direct providers as a market share competitor; they have created a segment that didn’t previously exist,” Andy says.
“However, lower cost treatments have altered expectations among some patients, which reduces our ability to pull the price-increase lever as operating costs rise. This is where patient education is crucial, so the differences between visiting a specialist orthodontist and the alternatives are well understood.”
Attracting the right patients
In recent years, Andy explains that demand for elective treatments has grown. This is due to increased digital marketing, a greater awareness of aesthetic benefits among patients - especially adults - and the growing penetration of new digital and less invasive technologies such as aligners for straightening teeth.
“This demand was markedly increased during COVID when border closures meant international travel was not an option and therefore disposable income was more available for treatments.”
Andy says that as the current macroeconomic landscape of increased interest rates and inflation has put pressure on demand among these patients, Smile Partners is “doubling down” on attracting patients who “need rather than want” treatments.
“Over the past three or four years, part of our growth has come through digital marketing that targets patients with an element of choice.”
“However, that’s where the downward pressure will be felt first, so we’re sharpening our focus on traditional avenues and patient types that aren’t as impacted by macro challenges.”
“Patients referred by a dentist will usually have a medical need for treatment, and cost is not necessarily their main decision driver, so building relationships with dentists and strengthening word-of-mouth referrals continues to be a priority.”
Experience as a differentiator
While the business is adapting its marketing approach, Andy says Smile Partners’ focus on the patient experience hasn’t changed. The business constantly looks at the end-to-end patient journey to identify opportunities to make every interaction more seamless.
One example is the use of technology to improve care and convenience. “We’re aiming to digitise orthodontics, so that we only bring patients in when we need to,” Andy says. “We use Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions alongside digitally planned treatment options to remotely monitor people’s teeth and the progress of their orthodontic plans”.
“Patients can use a phone to scan their teeth which is uploaded to the monitoring system. An in-practice clinical coordinator then reviews the results every week to identify any issues that can be escalated to the orthodontist if needed. They also maintain open communication with the patient.”
“Traditionally, patients would need regular appointments, say every 6-8 weeks over a couple of years, taking far more time than just the initial consultation. This often requires patients and guardians to take time off school and work. Through utilising these new technologies, we’re working towards an ‘appointment on demand’ model. This is both convenient for patients and ensures that their treatment is monitored more closely and frequently than ever before.”
Ensuring practices are at capacity
While Smile Partners is targeting growth, the ability of a practice to provide the best experience for patients can be limited by its capacity. Therefore, Smile Partners’ use of these digital solutions has broader implications for the efficiency and productivity of its practices.
“Changing the way practices operate through the use of digital technologies means that as well as improving the patient experience, there is also the opportunity to increase the number of patients that can be seen by a practice.”
According to Andy, another important focus to ensure the practices can operate at their full potential is making people feel supported, acknowledged, and empowered.
“Our focus is on retention rather than recruitment, and improving our culture is the best way to keep the great people we have. We’re looking to build a “best-in-class” employee value proposition that truly separates us from other employers. The first step in that process is conducting an all-staff engagement survey, and acting on this feedback will be crucial.”
“Making a genuine difference to patients’ self-confidence is extremely rewarding for me and all of our staff, so I believe we have strong foundations to further develop our culture."