Chris Salierno, DDS

The stories behind your data

Dec. 1, 2020
Dr. Chris Salierno, chief editor of Dental Economics, explores the difference between sets of dental practice data and key performance indicators and how they can best help you guide your practice.
Chris Salierno, DDS, Chief Dental Officer, Tend

You may have heard a version of the phrase, “What gets measured gets managed.” Over the years this quote has been incorrectly attributed to a few different business thought leaders, including Peter Drucker. It’s also been taken out of the original context and used to justify rather extreme management practices. The original, full quote came from author V. F. Ridgway in 1956, and it warned us about the dark side of managing with data: “What gets measured gets managed—even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.”1

Our practice management software puts piles of data at our fingertips. Perhaps too much data. Or maybe it’s the right data; it’s just that we don’t really know what to do with it. Ridgway’s warning is twofold. First, he cautions us against fully reducing the complexity of a business to a set of measurements. No doubt you’ve been paying attention to the number of new patients who visit your office every month, a classic dental data point. But it would be a mistake to look only at the quantity of new patients and not the quality. If you were to implement a new marketing campaign that doubled the number of new patients per month, you would consider that a success, right? But now imagine that most of those additional patients are “tire kickers” who are not interested in comprehensive care and who never return to your office. The new-patient number is valuable, but there’s more to the story.

This leads us to the second caveat: failing to consider what can’t be easily measured. How do you measure patient satisfaction or quality outcomes of care? I would argue that many practices forgo this kind of analysis because it doesn’t just get tallied on a practice report. And yet, without a sense of these things that cannot be easily measured, we can fail to manage properly.

I prefer the term “key performance indicator” (KPI) over “data” for businesses. It changes cold numbers in black and white into indicators in vivid color. A KPI invites us to ask more questions and uncover what may really be going on beneath the surface. Data suggests a measure of practice performance, but we’re left to interpret it accordingly.

It may seem like I’m playing a game of subtle semantics, but I think it’s an important distinction. As our management software becomes more sophisticated and we add features such as patient communication and engagement, we’ll have more data and reports than ever before. We should consider whether we’re drawing the wrong conclusions from our measurements or completely ignoring important concepts that have yet to be enumerated.

As you read articles in this issue by Dr. Roger Levin, Dennis McCafferty, and Dr. Michael Tornow, I urge you to consider how you’ll use your data. Management is about much more than pushing buttons and reading spreadsheets. There are interesting stories behind your data. Let our profession’s KPIs be your dashboard, but remember, you’re still the one in the driver’s seat.


Chris Salierno, DDS
[email protected]


  1. Ridgway VF. Dysfunctional consequences of performance measurements. Adm Sci Q. 1956;1(2):240-247.
About the Author

Chris Salierno, DDS | Chief Dental Officer, Tend

Chris Salierno, DDS, is a general dentist from Long Island, New York. He graduated from Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine in 2005. Dr. Salierno lectures internationally on clinical dentistry, practice management, and leadership development. In 2017 he became a chief development officer with the Cellerant Consulting Group, and he was the chief editor of Dental Economics from 2014 to 2021. In 2021, he became the chief dental officer at Tend. He can be reached on Instagram @the_curious_dentist.

Updated May 13, 2022

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