Tina Wixon talks to Tania Ross about her experience as a new sole owner during COVID-19 and her plans for the future.
Tania Ross became the sole owner of the practice she has co-owned for many years just one month before the outbreak of COVID-19 and shutdown of routine dentistry.
Here, Tina Wixon talks to Tania about that baptism of fire and how she managed the lockdown as a new sole owner, and the direction she now wants to take her practice.
What were your highs and lows during this period?
Tania: The high was that it enabled me to really step back and take a good look at the practice and the team. It’s made me realise how good a practice I have and the members of my team who are really behind me and supportive.
Even though we couldn’t physically see and treat patients, it was really rewarding to see how loyal they are to the practice. This is not something I necessarily thought would come to the fore at the start of lockdown. However, they were so nice when we spoke to them on the phone. We had emails from them saying things like: ‘How are you? How’s everyone? We miss coming in.’
The biggest low was probably the fact that I’d recently bought the practice and all my well-laid plans that I wanted to kick off had to be put on the back burner. Personally, I also struggled with the mental restriction of being at home for so long; as much as I love my children and my family, I need to go to work for sanity!
Picking up on that ‘mental restriction’ point, how did you find moving from joint principal to owner? And then going into lockdown and having no one to bounce ideas off?
Tania: I have to say that you’re a superstar, Tina, and have been brilliant. One of the highs of this whole period has been the WhatsApp group with other Practice Plan members which provided me with that outlet.
Not only has it been sociable but it’s also been helpful from a shared experience point of view. It meant that I could really look at how I plan the practice going forward and what I want for my career and what I want for my business.
I’ve got a relatively small NHS contract, but this whole lockdown experience has made me really think whether I want to continue with that contract and what I want to be able to offer my patients.
I noticed that your Practice Plan patients remained very loyal during this time. Do you think that retaining that income really helped you cope with the situation?
Tania: Absolutely, without question. The plan patients have always been really loyal anyway, on the whole. I’ve had patients on a plan for 14 years, and they know that they are going to be looked after and given priority for appointment booking, etc.
After reopening I wanted to focus on making the benefits of the plan even more obvious for our patients. They have supported us by being loyal and continuing their payments. In return for that we have to offer them the flexibility of being able to see them in a safe environment at a time that now suits them completely. For example, working longer hours, weekends, etc. We have to show them that same loyalty back, now that we can see them again.
In terms of finances, practices that don’t have any regular income had to cope on no funds at all during lockdown, which is impossible.
In lockdown, I still had staff and overheads to pay. If I wanted a business to go back to, I still had to pay everything, run the building and put things in place so that we could be ready for reopening. And that means paying staff and paying them a good salary to do a good job.
Of course, there was the option to furlough some staff. However, I am sure I wasn’t the only one who needed to keep some team members working so that they could answer the phone, call patients, etc. and show them that we were still there for them. And that we hadn’t just put the answering machine on and gone sunbathing in the garden. As a practice it was, and still is, important to show that we are open, in the capacity that we can be, and still providing the services we can.
I think that there may well be changes to the NHS contract on the back of all this. If that does happen, I think patients will begin thinking about what they want for their healthcare. Do they want priority in a situation like this or don’t they? And I think that patients may be even more receptive to joining a membership plan as they start to realise that plan fees are not considerably more than NHS fees.Especially if they see the hygienist already, therefore, actually what’s the disadvantage? There aren’t any, there’s only advantages.
It feels as if time is very limited for the current NHS contract. We’re in quite an affluent area where patients’ needs are fairly low. As a result, I’m not convinced the NHS system is going to be the most viable option for them.
How do you feel about the help you had from Practice Plan during COVID-19?
Tania: I’ve been with Practice Plan for 14 years. There’s never been a time where I thought I should look at another provider. I’ve never thought that. And now I really don’t think that.
Being able to use the online services, that give us access to our plan patients’ data, was really helpful when we were all working from home. It meant we could act quickly to help our patients with any queries.
We were receiving daily emails from Practice Plan. They were really informative. It was helpful to see what other practices were doing during this strange time. I think dentistry can be a very lonely world. Dentists are very good at not sharing things either. Although I am fortunate to be very friendly with lots of other local practice owners.
But it really felt like the whole Practice Plan community came together, through things like WhatsApp groups that you set up. At times like these you need to be a profession that comes together, not one that’s against each other. It was nice to see that happening.
Tina: Absolutely, a greater sense of unity is definitely one of the positives to take from this challenging time. Tania, thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts.