by Tyler Lee Pendergrass, DDS
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Many of you may remember that wonderful day when you finished your state board exam or walked across the stage to receive your diploma, and then entered the real world ready to combat all forms of dental disease, thinking you knew all the answers to becoming a great dentist. As we continue down memory lane, we also remember somewhere in the first few weeks of private practice a patient complaining of a toothache somewhere in the upper molar area, but to our dismay, we could find no periapical lesion or decay on the radiograph.
Immediately we start thinking: “I'm supposed to have all of the answers ... how could this be?” Panic begins to set in because time is ticking away and our patients are waiting for answers and a solution to their pain!
We have all been in this situation. I was lucky to be able to turn to my senior partner and mentor, Dr. Jim Hollifield. Bouncing ideas off him occurred on an almost daily basis during the first few months of private practice. The insight he provided proved to be invaluable!
As I began to write this article, I turned to another one of my mentors, Dr. David Duncan. Together, we brainstormed the ideal traits a young dentist should seek out in a mentor.
The first trait is a rather obvious, but very important one — a mentoring dentist should have a good reputation among his or her peers and in the community. There is a saying in the South: “The cream always rises to the top!” A great mentor will be at the top of the respect chain, and a young dentist should look for this in whomever he or she chooses to look to for advice.
A second trait in a mentor is stability in his or her practice and personal life. Dentistry is, by nature, hard work, and we never quit learning. Maintaining stability in your practice and personal life is so vital to overall health. Stability keeps the practice on an even keel, minimizing the lows and making it easier to achieve sustainable growth.
A third trait exhibited by a mentor is a higher level of involvement in organized dentistry and his or her community. There are many practice-management groups available that can assist you with establishing a practice.They can teach you many techniques to help you increase new-patient flow and fine-tune your practice. Dentists who become involved in various community outreach programs, civic programs, church activities, and local dental societies help establish their names in the public and show they are involved members of their hometowns. Patients want this kind of personal association and relationship with their dentist — having your name out there maintains a lasting bond which, in turn, strengthens the dentist/patient relationship.
A fourth mentor trait a young dentist should look for is accessibility. Young dentists will face a myriad of new problems and issues. They need to feel that they can contact their mentors at any time without fear of the mentor looking down on them or speaking to them in a condescending manner. Young dentists are not as secure in their abilities, and mentors can help them avoid the various pitfalls they encountered in their early days of practice.
As the senior doctors out there know, many lessons will be learned during the first few formative years of private practice. Mentoring dentists can and should be there when things seem to fall apart, and they should provide tough love when it's needed, even if it's something the young dentist may not want to hear.
Learning comes only through experience. Any lessons a mentor provides will benefit both the new dentist and his or her patients. Looking back on my first years of private practice, I remember how I consulted with my own mentors time and time again, only to discover after talking with them how wrong I was in my thinking. If it weren't for them, I would have had to learn many more lessons the hard way.
The stress of failure and redos isn't conducive to success. There is no value high enough that I can place on those early lessons, and I still thank my mentors to this day for their guidance, patience, and instruction. If you are an experienced dentist, seek out a new dentist and take him or her under your wing. Elevate and build that new dentist up; give back some of the lessons you learned. New dentists will always need you and your expertise ... and the profession will thank you for it!
Tyler Lee Pendergrass, DDS, practices full time in Amarillo, Texas. After growing up in Amarillo, he returned following his graduation from the Baylor University College of Dentistry in 1999. He bought into his current dental practice in 2000. Send Dr. Pendergrass an e-mail at [email protected].