Mobile Dental Systems Getting Started
d. What is the best way to shop for a mobile vendor?

Working with the mobile vendor is no different from working with any other contractor. It is critical that you know what you want before you begin dialogue. What is your budget? What must you have? What would be nice to have? If you are clear on what you want, you will be more prepared to make compromises. Compromises will be required, not only because of budget, but mostly because of space and weight constraints. It helps to think of how you might design your kitchen differently if it had to travel down the road at 55 miles an hour every day!

Keep the various meanings of words in mind. Be certain the terms you use have the same meaning to the vendor. A vacuum pump to them is in the engine, while to you it is the machine that drives your dental equipment! Terms such as driver side, curb side, cab and back help you get oriented.

MHCN has developed a Vehicle Purchasing Spec Form (VPS) to help members who are potential buyers of vehicles. They spend time helping buyers understand the design and spec issues, what's possible to purchase within a certain budget, the vehicle options and what a realistic timeline is for vehicle delivery. When the VPS Form is completed, MCHN issues (on behalf of the buyer) an RFP along with the completed form to more than a dozen vendors, giving them deadlines for submitting proposals. MCHN follows the process, issuing advisory notices to keep the buyer abreast of issues of concern and to guide them throughout the process.

Many vendors are experienced in mobile dental care and will have practical answers to your questions. Remember, however, their expertise is in building a mobile unit, not in building a dental office. Some may have more experience in designing medical clinics than dental clinics. Work with them closely in deciding where to place sinks, lights, vents, the delivery system, and other components. Have dental team members think through what is necessary to do their job effectively. Learn to negotiate. Sometimes there will be practical considerations that make it impossible to do something that appears easy to dental personnel. For instance, the enclosed channel (chase) carrying air and water may be in the way. There may only be one practical location for a generator large enough to drive the equipment, which then negates changing the placement of a counter.

The negotiation process will be easier if you establish a good relationship with the vendor. A vendor may not think to offer you every option. When in doubt about options, go with the "no question is stupid" theory and ask. Together you will improve on any unit they have previously produced.

In addition to talking with people who own vehicles, do some research about the various mobile van companies on the Internet before contacting them. Their Web sites are listed on the contact list. Then check out their history and delivery track record. Willingness to share that information is a good sign. Use the following checklist as an interview tool.

Questions to Ask Mobile Manufacturers

How many dental vehicles have you manufactured?

How many are still on the road?

What are the available safety options (e.g., back-up monitor, remote heated mirrors, security systems)?

Who will train us on operation of the vehicle systems (e.g., start the generator, use the wheelchair lift, plug into shore/site power)?

Who will train us to operate the vehicle?

Is there a service department?

Who do we go to for repairs?

Will you introduce us to service providers in our area?

How is your vehicle constructed differently for delivering dental care
compared to a truck delivering freight?

How long does it take you to respond to breakdowns?

Do you give flexible service options?

What are typical repair costs and are parts available?

Do you have next-day shipping for replacement parts?

This is not like my car--whom do I call when I have a flat tire?

What design difficulties have you encountered with previous vehicles and how have you handled them?

It is critical to write the specifications for what you want built before you let bids from manufacturers. This is the only way to assure you are comparing "apples" to "apples". Seek advice on writing the specs from experts in your community such as the local ambulance provider, fire department, hospital or school fleet manager.