Handling negative media coverage and patients when you leave the NHS
My first ever client to implement an NHS to private practice conversion (and introduce a dental plan) was back in 1998.
11,000 NHS patients received a letter, advising them that 3,000 patients were going to be offered a plan membership and that, after that, the doors would be closed.
Three things happened:
The local Evening Telegraph ran a front-page story highlighting the dental practice decision;
The team at the practice (notably the front of house team) had to deal with a lot of irate patients who wanted their money's worth from the tax and N.I.;
3,000 signed up for the plan.
The editor of the said newspaper called the practice to ask for an interview with the owners. Said owners had left the country for a holiday and the worried Practice Manager called me asking for advice.
My advice was simple and straightforward - "no comment" - under no circumstances get drawn in.
Predictably, after the headlines, a few days passed and the media got bored and passed on to another "crisis".
The practice never looked back and, a few years ago, the owners sold to a corporate and are now enjoying a relaxed semi-retirement.
By the way, since 1998 the practice has grown and has offered superb clinical care and customer service to the local population.
Fast forward to yesterday and an email to one of my clients from a reporter at a BBC regional radio station:
We’ve heard a number of NHS dentists across the city and county are switching to private, yourselves included.
Are you free for a quick chat about it – are you doing it, why, and what does it mean for patients etc?
We’ve heard from a patient who said they’ve been told you’ve closed your waiting list for NHS patients. They also said their brother came in for emergency treatment and were told existing NHS patients are being switched to private – but he only found out when he went in and other patients haven’t been told.
I want to get your response to that please. We’re running something tomorrow morning so need to speak to you this afternoon."
The client asks for my advice - and here it is:
"DO NOT GET DRAGGED IN TO THIS.
You are not available for comment - not now, not tomorrow, not ever.
If they go public - let them - it will last for a day or two until something else happens.
You are not the only one across my client base getting worried about this."
I know I don't need to remind you that private dentistry is always fair game for a newspaper or radio station looking to sell copies and/or advertising.
There's an old adage that "bad publicity is like bad breath - it's better than no breath", in this case, you are better to stay well away from the noise.
Another client emailed me a few days ago, expressing concerns that, having pressed the button on the plan conversion a few weeks ago, she was getting negative feedback from "angry patients".
It's not about the money - it's about the quality.
I wrote to her on Monday:
I need to bring you back to the core value here.
You have made a personal and professional decision that the only way that you can offer the level of customer service and clinical care that sits in harmony with your core values is to leave the NHS and offer an independent service.
There is no doubt that the NHS are heroes - whether it is Covid or just general care for the population - they do an amazing job.
However, when I joined dentistry in 1996 the NHS dental budget for the UK was £2bn a year - in 2022 it is £3.4bn a year. Since then, the British pound has lost 51% of its value. It's going backwards.
When we factor in the pay rises that team members and clinicians are expecting to keep pace with the first serious cost of living crisis in 40 years, the viability of NHS dental provision for the independent provider becomes even less manageable.
Last September it was reported that 75% of all NHS dental patients in the UK are now being seen by corporates - I have no doubt that figure will escalate.
What matters most right now is that you are marketing the benefits of independent provision.
Have you made that list?
It isn’t your job to defend Government spending - it is your job to emphasise the benefits of private.
Make the list and share it with me - we can then save this with the clients and work on it.
As to the champagne socialists - you will never please them.
I repeat my often stated view that, if someone can afford Sky, Prime, Netflix, Apple TV - and drive a car, smoke, drink and take holidays - they can afford private dentistry."
Don't engage with the media;
Make sure you and your team are well versed in answering the "why?" questions and inevitable complaints;
Stick to your core values.