I’ve written quite a lot over the past few years about the trend toward soloists and small groups selling their practices to hospitals, multispecialty groups, or larger practices. And I’ve made it fairly clear that I don’t think it’s a particularly good thing that the medical profession is going the way of the corner gas station and the mom-and-pop grocery store; it’s not good for physicians, patients, or private practice.
That said, if retirement looms with no individual buyers in sight, or your overhead is getting out of hand, selling to a larger entity is an option that you may need to consider. Too often, though, sellers are not receiving a fair return on the equity they have worked so hard to build over several decades, either because they have waited too long and must accept what is offered, or because they simply take the buyer’s word for their practice’s value. Don’t put yourself in either of those positions; and don’t entertain any offers until you obtain an objective appraisal from a neutral party.
Of course, a medical practice is trickier to value than is an ordinary business and usually requires the services of an experienced professional appraiser. Entire books have been written about the process, so I can’t hope to cover it completely in 850 words; but three basic yardsticks are essential for determining the equity, or book value, of a practice:
• Tangible Assets: equipment, cash, accounts receivable, and other property owned by the practice.
• Liabilities: accounts payable, outstanding loans, and anything else owed to others.
• Intangible Assets: sometimes called “good will” – the reputation of the physicians, the location and name recognition of the practice, the loyalty and volume of patients, and other, well, intangibles.
Valuing tangible assets is comparatively straightforward, but there are several ways to do it, and when reviewing a practice appraisal, you should ask which of them was used. Depreciated value is the book value of equipment and supplies as determined by their purchase price, less the amount their value has decreased since purchase. Remaining useful life value estimates how long the equipment can be expected to last. Market (or replacement) value is the amount it would cost on the open market to replace all equipment and supplies.
Intangible assets are more difficult to value. Many components are analyzed, including location, interior and exterior decor, accessibility to patients, age and functional status of equipment, systems in place to promote efficiency, reasons why patients come back (if in fact they do), and the overall reputation of the practice in the community. Other important factors include the “payer mix” (what percentage pays cash, how many third-party contracts are in place, and how well they pay, etc.), the extent and strength of the referral base, and the presence of supplemental income streams, such as clinical research.
It is also important to determine to what extent intangible assets are transferable. For example, unique skills with a laser, neurotoxins, or filler substances, or extraordinary personal charisma, may increase your practice’s value to you, but they are worthless to the next owner, and he or she will be unwilling to pay for them unless your services become part of the deal.
Once again, there are many ways to estimate intangible asset value, and once again, you should ask which were used. Cash Flow Analysis works on the assumption that cash flow is a measure of intangible value. Capitalization of Earnings puts a value, or capitalization, on the practice’s income streams using a variety of assumptions. Guideline Comparison uses various databases to compare your practice with other, similar ones that have changed hands in the past.
Two newer techniques that some consider a better estimate of intangible assets are the replacement method, which estimates the costs of starting the practice over again in the current market; and the excess earnings method, which measures how far above average your practice’s earnings (and thus its overall value) are.
Asset-based valuation is the most popular – but by no means the only – method available. Income-based valuation looks at the source and strength of a practice’s income stream as a creator of value, as well as whether or not its income stream under a different owner would mirror its present one. This in turn becomes the basis for an understanding of the fair market value of both tangible and intangible assets. Market valuation combines the asset-based and income-based approaches, along with an analysis of sales and mergers of comparable practices in the community, to determine the value of a practice in its local market.