Asking the big questions about your practice and your life

Sept. 1, 2007
Dr. Baxter was FRUSTRATED. He was 62 and still had 12 years of practice ahead of him before he could even think about retiring. He married late in life and had two children in their pre-teens.

by Roger P. Levin, DDS

Dr. Baxter was FRUSTRATED. He was 62 and still had 12 years of practice ahead of him before he could even think about retiring. He married late in life and had two children in their pre-teens. He wanted to help them out with their college education, which was about a decade away.

He realized he should have been in a better position financially at this stage in life. He also felt that his practice had taken "a wrong turn." For more than a decade, he wanted to generate more production from cosmetic and elective procedures, but something always seemed to happen to derail that goal. One week, a key team member would leave the practice. Another week, production for larger and more complex cosmetic procedures would fall drastically short because there wasn't room in the schedule. All too often, the practice seemed to be in crisis mode.

While Dr. Baxter's scenario may appear extreme, Levin Group has seen many established dentists in similar situations. What can you do to avoid ending up like Dr. Baxter?

The five questions

Your dental career is a journey. As you follow your path to ultimate success, you must step back and ask yourself some questions to evaluate where you are and where you are going. We recommend dentists ask themselves these five questions every five years throughout their careers:

  1. Are you happy with your practice?
  2. Are you happy with your financial status?
  3. What are your lifetime goals?
  4. Are you on a path to achieve those goals?
  5. How do you build a practice that allows you to achieve your lifetime goals?

Answering these five questions can make a tremendous difference in a dentist's financial status and ultimately quality of life. While these five questions appear relatively simple, the answers from dentists are often quite complex.

1. Are you happy with your practice?

In 22 years of consulting to dentists and specialists, Levin Group has seen many doctors who are incredibly frustrated with their practices. This can happen for a number of reasons, including lack of vision, outdated systems, and weak leadership. Owning and operating a practice can be extremely challenging. Dentists are not only the main producers, but they also are the business managers and owners for the practice. These multiple responsibilities can make dentistry seem overwhelming at times. Many practitioners get so caught up in trying to juggle their many duties that they lose sight of why they went into dentistry.

One of the first things clients do when entering our consulting program is to compose a vision statement. Here are some questions that are helpful in creating a practice vision:

  • Where do you want to be professionally in the next three to five years?
  • What do you want to change about your practice?
  • Do you want to add more cosmetic procedures to your service mix?
  • What percentage of your overall production should cosmetic services generate?

We have found that many practices either do not have a vision or have not successfully updated vision statements in many years. Without a vision, doctors can get immersed in daily operations and lose sight of the big picture. Years can pass, as in Dr. Baxter's case, before dentists realize they are not on the right path to reaching their ultimate potential.

2. Are you happy with your financial status?

To adequately answer this question, you must look beyond the immediate and take a more comprehensive view of your financial status. Most dentists are doing quite well in terms of salary. But many do not adequately plan for the future. Your practice should be the means of attaining financial independence at a reasonable age.

Many dentists, like Dr. Baxter, put off thinking about financial independence until later in their careers. Some practitioners think financial independence will naturally occur over time. Some dentists believe a few years down the road will be a better time to start planning for financial independence. Other doctors are so focused on paying off student loans and raising a family that financial independence is the last thing on their minds. Another group of practice owners overextend themselves with expensive cars, multiple homes, and luxury items.

Wherever you are in your career, there is a time to make changes that lead to greater success. If you want to reach financial independence at a reasonable age, it's best to start planning for it now. That's why we recommend that dentists consult a certified financial planner as early as possible in their careers. Financial independence occurs when practicing dentistry becomes a choice, not an obligation. Who wouldn't want to reach that state in their 50s rather than their 60s or 70s (as in Dr. Baxter's case)?

3. What are your lifetime goals?

Goal setting is critical to achieving success. People who recognize and conceptualize what they want are the ones who achieve financial independence, professional satisfaction, and the ability to enjoy what life has to offer.

Make a list of 20 or 30 things you would like to achieve during your life. They should be short- or long-term goals. It does not matter if they seem frivolous or unreachable. Just write them down. This is not the time to worry about the order, priority, or importance of each item. Just put your thoughts down on paper. Once you have your list, put it away for a week or two and forget about it. Then, pull out the list and review it. See if those items still seem as relevant as they did the week before. Your mood may be different. Feel free to remove anything from the list that no longer strikes you as important and add any new items that may occur to you. That is all it takes to begin the process of goal setting.

4. Are you on a path to achieve these goals?

Once a month, sit down and review your progress. Merely writing down a goal on a piece of paper will not make it happen. However, when you sit down for a monthly progress review, it's time for a reality check. Are you on schedule to achieving any of your goals? Or are you behind? Do you need to ramp up your efforts?

If your goal is to increase your cosmetic production by 30 percent, you will need to implement some internal marketing strategies to build patient interest in your cosmetic services. The next month you might make a note that you have added brochures and a newsletter to the practice for patient education about new services. The following month your notes may reflect any change in the volume of patients interested in these services. This process continues indefinitely until you reach the point where you are satisfied with your cosmetic production. New ideas feed new successes, and the momentum continues.

This process is what long-term goal setting is all about. You should be continually moving in a defined direction and taking action to reach your goal. I have frequently stated in my practice management seminars that it takes approximately one year to make significant changes in a dental practice. Certainly, objectives will change over time, but creating a structural framework for goal setting will drive performance and keep you on track.

5. How do you build a practice that allows you to achieve your lifetime goals?

Once you have established your lifetime goals, you should examine whether your current practice business model will allow you to achieve those goals. For example, if you are performing a high volume of single-tooth procedures, will you be able to generate enough practice profitability to retire at 50 compared to a practice that performs a more balanced mix of cosmetic- and need-based services?

The dental practice is not only a place for providing excellent quality of care, but it also is the vehicle for achieving your lifetime goals. Once a dentist understands this perspective, the right practice model can be established. There are dentists who need very modest incomes to fund their lifetime goals and others who need significant incomes for theirs. The difference is not a matter of right or wrong, but what is right for you and your practice. Many dental practices are currently underperforming. With the right management systems, you can increase scheduling capacity, improve case presentation, boost production, and generate greater profitability.

Take the time to ask the questions

Asking the right questions is critical to achieving practice and personal success. Many dentists get so caught up in the day-to-day operations of their practices that they never take the time to examine whether they are on the right path to reaching their potential. If you are unhappy with your practice or financial status, now is the time to initiate positive change. Don't wait until you're a few years away from retirement. Don't put up with high stress and low profitability. Build a better practice and life starting today.

Some changes you may be able to make on your own. Other comprehensive changes may require the assistance of outside advisors or experts. But only you can begin the process of changing your practice and your life.

For a free excerpt on goal setting from Dr. Levin's book, "Get A Life and Keep It," call Levin Group at (888) 973-0000 or email your contact information to [email protected], with "Get A Life" in the subject line.

Editor's Note: This article does not constitute legal or tax advice, nor is it intended to provide specific investment advice. Please consult your legal, tax, and financial advisors if you have questions.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, is founder and CEO of Levin Group, a dental management consulting firm that is dedicated to improving the lives of dentists via a portfolio of lifetime services and solutions. Contact Levin Group at (888)973-0000, or

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