Bringing better dental healthcare to more people at TAG
Building teams that are passionate about delivering great care and great service - to both patients and doctors - is critically important to Bob Fontana, chairman and CEO of TAG - The Aspen Group, a business he founded more than 23 years ago – as Aspen Dental, and which recently expanded beyond dental, and into healthcare and was aptly rebranded as TAG last year.
“The company has recently evolved,” explains Fontana. “We went from being a dental support organisation - supporting independent practice owners and dentists for Aspen Dental branded offices, to now - as TAG, providing support to four healthcare businesses.”
Fontana’s experience from over the past 25 years has significantly shaped his current role as founder, chairman, and CEO.
“It's been a learning journey, there's no doubt about it,” said Fontana. “We've been doing this for a long time, but what hasn't changed is our focus on a real patient-centric and doctor-centric model. You realise during this journey that having people connected to what we're doing is critically important. We’re proud to be able to expand deeper into healthcare and continue to develop the businesses that are now in the TAG network - Aspen Dental, ClearChoice Dental Implant Centres, WellNOw Urgent Care and Chapter Aesthetic Studio.”
As part of the TAG charitable giving programme, the Health Mouth Movement - and thousands of participating Aspen Dental offices across the U.S. - have provided more than US$24mn in free dental care to people in need, since 2014, through:
- Aspen Dental Day Of Service for U.S. Veterans
- The Healthy Mouth Mobile
- The Overseas Outreach Programme
“Teams love doing that work, to be honest with you. They really do! It's a part of who we are,” says Fontana. “We've had many trips overseas to bring free dental care to some tough areas that are very underserved. The doctors, providers and teams love to be able to do that. We expect to be able to do more of that as we continue to grow in each of the healthcare businesses we support. It's an important part of our culture, so we absolutely will continue to do that as we grow.”
Supporting patients and listening to doctors
Back in 1998 when Fontana founded Aspen Dental, he had a clear vision for what he wanted the company to achieve.
“My vision has really remained the same,” confirms Fontana. “That's to take friction out of the system. Aspen Dental was created with the mindset that the patient experience could be better and delivering a great patient experience was the early idea. We really have led that – the consumerisation of healthcare – and that has been an important part of who we are, as part of our DNA. Building a model around that, continuing to listen to what our patients’ needs are, what their expectations are.
“On the professional side, for the independent doctors we support, we must listen to the doctors' needs and expectations too. Providing and developing a great doctor model is critical – so they can focus their time, not on running the business, but on providing great patient care and a great patient experience.”
Healthcare companies have undergone transformational change through the pandemic, including at TAG.
“Everybody's reimagining what they need to do, because the pandemic has shaken up a lot of companies. Healthcare is no exception.
“We meet the patients where they want us to meet them, in terms of the experiences they have. We understand access is critical, affordability is critical, and making sure that they continue to have less friction in their experiences. That continues to be the cornerstone of what we do for the businesses we support.”
Fontana says healthcare is starting to learn that, too.
“There are more emerging models now, that you're seeing which say: listen, we understand technology can play a big role in providing convenience and access to patients in whatever modality they're in.”
Fontana says there are more emerging models in healthcare today - especially those that recognise the role technology can play in providing convenience and access to care - regardless of where the patient may be.
Supporting the entrepreneurial aspirations of employees and healthcare workers, in their personal and professional development
Dentistry is certainly an essential service and a high-risk occupation during an infectious pandemic.
“The providers and healthcare teams who we support are essential workers and we’re proud of what they do,” says Fontana. “If you think about dentistry and the needs of so many patients across the country that we serve, being there for them is really, really critical.”
TAG has also made sure that teams have had the right tools, PPE and critical training — and not forgetting, the right support.
“Quite frankly, making sure the team felt good about what they were doing — and knowing they were supported. Beyond this, we provide support through ongoing training, learning and development, and mentorship. Every time we invest in the providers who we serve, their business and the quality of service they provide to patients becomes stronger. So while that was really important during the pandemic, we know it's important on an ongoing basis, as we continue to grow.”
Fontana believe the strategy that has helped to grow Aspen Dental from a small practice in upstate New York to nearly 1,000 dental offices nationwide can also serve as a model for other consumer-focused healthcare businesses.
Through the recent transformation to TAG - the model is now being applied across dentistry, dental implants, urgent care and medical aesthetics.
“It goes back to the foundation of who we are – understanding the needs of patients, understanding the needs of providers. WellNow is currently one of the fastest growing urgent care platforms. They're continuing to refine their model to meet the needs of patients across the country.
“ClearChoice is able to deliver implants in one day. Chapters, a medical aesthetics business, has one of the largest practices in the country, and we’re continuing to scale that business as we speak. They're all brand forward, consumer focused, and understanding of the needs of their patients.
“The DNA of these brands are very similar to our origins, and we know there are other healthcare adjacent opportunities and other verticals that TAG can provide the same level of support to in a way that allows each business to scale and bring better healthcare to more people. Consistent with all that we believe in - when it comes to breaking down barriers for the patient and the provider.”
Beyond what exists today, Fontana can envision the TAG model working for other healthcare verticals as well.
“We believe there are so many other places in healthcare that we can take our lessons, our core capabilities, and our skill sets into at TAG,” said Fontana. “23 years on the journey we've had, and there's so much embedded talent in the people we have here that we think we can help other teams who are developing other concepts, other healthcare verticals - and support them in a way that helps refine their models, scale their businesses, through the lessons we’ve learned through refining our business model throughout the past two decades.
“We're excited about the businesses we support today, but we're also excited about the providers and patients we can serve as we continue to grow.”
Within the past five years, Fontana has brought Aspen Dental, ClearChoice Dental Implants, WellNow Urgent Care, and Chapter Aesthetic Studio all under TAG. How does Fontana identify the healthcare spaces to move into?
“We look at each of the healthcare spaces and categories and try to understand their trends and what the needs are across the country. We also look at the different models and how they are consistent with what we know works and what we're passionate about. Are they brand forward? Have they created a platform? Are they trying to create better access and less friction in their respective space?
“We're continuing to search for those opportunities. We think there are great opportunities in new verticals and certainly new emerging platforms that we think we can help support at TAG to continue to grow them efficiently at scale. That's what we're really good at doing and it’s a part of who we are.”
The next move for TAG
At Aspen Dental, the company is doing what it’s always done — and more of the same. The company opened up nearly 90 new locations in the US through what Fontana sees as organic growth. Another 90 sites will be added this year, as TAG continues to identify communities, where they can help meet the needs of patients, who may otherwise be underserved.
“We're at an inflexion point - continuing to make strategic investments in Aspen Dental advancing the technology and digital capabilities in every office across the country,” says Fontana. “The providers are excited, the teams are excited, we think it'll be not only a better team experience, but better outcomes for patients. We also know the investments we are making in learning and development are critical.
In addition, the TAG Oral Care Centre for Excellence will be opening later this year, in Chicago. It will provide free care to the most needed part of the population; and it will provide an opportunity for doctors within the TAG network to learn and develop skills in advanced clinical procedures - which can then be taken back to their own practice - to ultimately live out the TAG mission on providing better care to more people.