Practice profile - Blue sky thinking

Jim Killgore visits a dental practice that did more than just move premises – it reinvented itself 

IT was hardly the ideal location for a modern dental practice – two first-floor flats knocked together in a Victorian tenement and accessed by stairs off a narrow close. But in 1983 dentist Don Macleod and his partner saw it as a good start and George Street Dental opened for business in the town of Bathgate near Edinburgh.

Over the years as the practice expanded with Dr Macleod taking over sole ownership, the space grew increasingly unsuitable for purpose. Among limitations was the inability to create a full-size local decontamination unit (LDU) as well as the lack of disabled access.

“One hundred and ten year old plumbing and modern dentistry do not sit easily together,” says Dr Macleod.

“We used to regularly flood the shop below and of course we would be regularly £ooded by the flats above.”

So it grew increasingly obvious that a new location was called for. But Don Macleod and his practice team saw this as more than just a necessity. Moving practice presented a unique opportunity for change – not just in physical location but in the way the practice operated. And this is how Blue Sky Dental first took shape – and the ultimate result earned Dr Macleod and his team the accolade of Best New Practice at the 2011 Dentistry Scotland Awards.

BLANK CANVAS

I recently visited Blue Sky Dental to ask about the challenges of establishing a new practice. To get an idea of where I was going I typed the Bathgate postcode into Google maps and on checking Street View was shown a modern detached building occupied by an Ethel Austin clothing store. Checking the postcode again I then realised the image predated the move and perhaps my confusion was understandable, as a former retail unit may not seem an obvious location for a new dental practice.

“It was like a blank canvas,” says Kerry Lambie, one of the practice managers at Blue Sky Dental. I spoke with her and her co-manager Vicki McKay in the practice conference room, a bright and roomy meeting space on the first floor, with a flat screen video unit on one wall and a large internal window overlooking the reception area below.

“When we first saw the building it definitely ticked some boxes in what we were looking for,” says Vicki. Among those boxes was a location in an “up and coming” part of town near the new train station. The building also sits on one corner of a large retail park with ample free two-hour parking for patients – the lack of which was another drawback of the former practice on George Street.

But it was the potential offered by the 4,000 square feet of space that was most exciting. In its former incarnation as a clothing outlet the building had been used primarily as a shop £oor downstairs with stock and storage areas on the first floor. Here Dr Macleod and his managers envisaged a ground floor reception area, surgeries and support rooms. Upstairs was ample space for admin and staff functions.

“With much trepidation,” says Dr Macleod, “I set the ball rolling and entered the dark and mysterious world of commercial lawyers, architects, surveyors and, worst of all, the local planning authority.”

Dr Macleod project-managed the design and renovation of the building himself with the help of Kerry and Vicki and he also came up with the name Blue Sky Dental – this being a nod to how he encouraged his team to think of what was possible with the new venture. Many months of planning and design followed with the team drawing inspiration from the internet and also by visiting other practices having undertaken similar projects. Approval for the building work came through in December 2010 and work commenced on the site in early January 2011. Six months later Blue Sky Dental opened its doors for business.

The final result is certainly unlike many UK dental practices – a refreshingly bright and airy interior, uncluttered and almost minimalist. On the ground floor are five full-sized surgeries and a large front patient waiting area and reception separated by a glass wall that fills the interior with light from the large shop-front window.

Among the other rooms is a spacious and fully equipped LDU and a dedicated orthopantomogram suite for taking full-mouth radiographs and a separate X-ray processing room. The upper floor is reserved for two business offices, a staff room for lunch and tea, staff toilets with a shower and lockers, the dedicated video conferencing and training room, store and equipment rooms.

NEW LOCALE,NEW WAYS OF WORKING

Not only was all the dental equipment fresh out the box – from the Belmont Clesta II chairs and individual surgery Durr suction motors to the phosphor plate digital processing unit – the practice also purchased new software that has changed the way it manages patient records, the aim being a “paperless” office.

“In the old system we kept paper copies of all the records,” says Kerry. “Now we scan the letters we get so we don’t need to keep hard copies. Our X-rays are also scanned directly into patient files.”

The software (SOE EXACT) also incorporates features like pop-up messages and automated email and texting for recalls and appointment reminders that have reduced patient DNAs. The practice plans soon to introduce email booking.

Another welcome change for Kerry and Vicki is the benefit of having business offices on the first floor. Says Vicki: “At the old surgery we didn’t have a room for management duties so were always carting box files about. It’s fantastic now to have a base.” Not only do the offices provide a quiet place to work they also offer privacy in dealing with HR matters.

The larger staff room has also made a difference to practice morale. “It’s big enough for everybody to have lunch or tea together,” says Kerry. “The staff room in the other practice was so cramped it was like two in, two out.”

And the larger conference and training room means that the practice can now invite trainers in to offer courses to all the staff at once and with the possibility of video conferencing for remote training.

Has the move been successful for the business? In just over a year since relocating the practice has picked up 3,200 new patients which brings the total list to over 10,000. This can be attributed in part to the high visibilty of the practice at its new site. To accommodate the increased demand a new associate dentist has been hired and one of the other associates has had to up her hours.

“Although this is a dedicated NHS practice, my goal was to equip the new surgery to a standard that a private practitioner would be proud of,” says Dr Macleod.

“I am very proud of what has been achieved and have been delighted by the positive reaction from everyone, staff and patients alike.”

A change of scene can make a big difference , adds Vicki. She recalls the first day the new practice opened. “It was a completely different feeling coming through the door – much brighter and exciting. I think it gave everyone a new lease of life.”

Jim Killgore is an associate editor of MDDUS Practice Manager

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