In March of 2017, the American Dental Association estimated that 7.1% of dental practices are supported by dental support organizations (DSOs). As that number has grown, there has been an equal drop in the number of solo practitioners. Several factors, including mounting dental school debt and a greater desire for work-life balance, have contributed to this trend.
The list of DSOs is always growing and changing. Before reaching out, it helps to have a solid understanding of what DSOs do, and what kinds of qualities make for the best ones.
What is a Dental Support Organization (DSO)?
A Dental Support Organization, or DSO, contracts with dental practices to provide key non-clinical operations needed to operate and build the business. This can include things like marketing and marketing strategy, appointment setting, billing and accounts receivable, purchasing, and patient communications.
The Association of Dental Support Organizations, an industry trade group for DSOs, explains that the main goal for DSOs is to enable dentists to focus on their patients, delivering excellent dental care. By helping to run and maintain the business side of a practice, a DSO can make for a more efficient business and better work-life balance for the dentist.
As a leading dental support organization, Heartland Dental has helped countless dentists and practice owners throughout the country reclaim their lives by providing logistic, administrative, bookkeeping, marketing, and many other support services that allow practice owners to get back to practicing dentistry and enjoying their lives.
What Should You Look for in a Best-in-Class DSO?
Because we are a DSO ourselves, any list of “the best” dental support organizations is likely to seem biased. Instead, we thought we would do our readers a better service by listing those qualities a dentist or practice owner should look for in a DSO:
A solid transition plan. A reputable DSO should have a solid plan, not only for growing your business, but also for transferring ownership and streamlining operations. All of this should be done according to best practices for the industry. If too many details seem up in the air, or if the DSO wants a commitment before they share details, that can be a red flag.
Good “fit” with the support team. Not only will each DSO have a different “style” when it comes to the business of dentistry, but their internal teams will work and communicate in different ways. Getting a feel for the company culture and feeling comfortable with the staff you will be working with is crucial.
Reliable cash flow and a willingness to invest in you. Cash flow can be the biggest thorn in the side of a dental practice. There is a lot of up-front capital investment, and even a well-established practice might not get paid for a procedure for some time. This causes a “cash crunch” that could put a practice in jeopardy. The best DSOs will help manage the capital investment and help ensure dentists receive an ongoing salary so that cash flow is less of an issue.
Ongoing educational and mentorship opportunities. The best dental support organizations don’t just focus on the business of dentistry; they focus on actually helping and supporting the dentists themselves. This also includes ongoing education, communication about new technology and best practices, and mentorship opportunities for new and starting dentists.
Freedom and autonomy. Some DSOs may ask you to use their branding when you advertise. They also might seek input on things like the brands you use, or the ways you interact with patients. In some cases, this input might be welcome, but you should make sure that you keep your freedom and autonomy in the areas over which you want control. So ask up front: Can you keep your identity and your patients? To what extent is the agreement an actual collaboration? Be sure that you can have the autonomy you want.
A lifetime career plan. When a dentist contracts with a DSO, they might be looking for the next step in their career (or even retirement). This could mean working with other dentists and dental professionals in a team setting, while keeping decision-making abilities for the clinical practice (see above). The best DSOs customize terms to fit the dentist's needs and, eventually, their exit time frame. This requires a great deal of transparency and communication.
How to Find the Best Dental Support Organizations?
In the end, the people who are bound to have the most objective opinion about DSOs will be other dentists. Most aren’t shy about sharing their opinions about particular DSOs, good or bad.
A good idea, then, is to contact other dentists with whom you have a rapport. See who they have heard of, or better yet, who they decided to affiliate with.
Also look at the number of dental practices affiliated with the DSO in question. While bigger doesn’t always mean better, it’s usually a good sign: It means that other dentists are systematically choosing that DSO over others, and likely having positive experiences with them.