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Thrust, drag, lift, weight: What powered flight teaches us about running a dental practice

Dec. 28, 2023
How do you operate a dental practice with balance, stability, and joy? Start with the four principles of powered flight as they relate to patient care, reliable operations, clinical expertise, and the ideal patient profile.

I recently went on a family vacation that began with a long commercial flight. Powered flight has always fascinated me; it’s something we often take for granted but continues to be a marvel of the modern age. The four key forces necessary for powered flight are thrust, drag, lift, and weight.1 Balancing and controlling these elements are what allow a plane to travel thousands of miles and predictably arrive safely, time and time again.

Surprisingly, these principles can also provide valuable insights into running a dental practice. In this article, we will explore how thrust, drag, lift, and weight can relate to patient care, reliable operations, clinical expertise, and the ideal patient profile.

Thrust: Patient care

Thrust is the force that propels an aircraft forward and is by far the most fun of the four elements. It’s hard to deny the thrill of accelerating toward takeoff, barreling down the runway. Thrust is a practice’s ability to attract new patients and retain existing ones. While attracting new patients is crucial, converting them is essential.

To harness the thrust in your practice, focus your marketing efforts to draw in the patients who fit you and your culture, and convert them into lifelong evangelists for the work you do. Many practices add thousands of dollars to their income simply by knowing who they want to treat and designing their patient care accordingly.

Key action: Clearly define your ideal patient in writing and then share this with your team in the next morning huddle.

Bonus thrust: Jet stream = Humanity’s constant need for care

Dentistry also has a bonus thrust element similar to a jet stream. The jet stream is a fast-flowing air current several miles above the earth. An airplane can fly faster and more effectively with a jet stream at its tail. Humanity’s constant need for care acts as a jet stream for the dental industry, making it somewhat resistant to economic highs and lows and requiring the practice to be even more specific about its ideal patient. Otherwise, you’ll have a patient base by default rather than by design.

Drag: Reliable operations and strong systems

In flight, drag refers to the resistance that opposes an aircraft’s forward motion. This is the most fixed and stable force of the four. In a dental practice, poor operational systems and inefficiencies can create drag that hampers productivity and growth. Managing nonrevenue-producing tasks, such as insurance benefit checks, claims follow-up, and filling schedule gaps can consume valuable time and resources, diverting focus from patient-centric care. Your practice can effectively outsource some of these tasks so your team can focus on their maximum billable hours.

But not all drag is detrimental. Just as a certain amount of drag is necessary for an aircraft to maintain stability and control, predictable systems and checklists can prevent hastiness and provide much-needed checks and balances within the dental practice. Software tools such as Dental Intelligence, Weave, and Slack can help increase effective communication within the dental team and directly with patients. By finding the sweet spot of “healthy drag,” dental practices can achieve a level of operational smoothness that enhances the overall patient experience, improves staff satisfaction, and allows for a more predictable result.

Key action: Conduct a software check to see how your practice is using technology to maximize your billable hours.

Lift: Clinical expertise and cultivating a positive culture

There is something uniquely special about lift. Lift, the force that allows an aircraft to rise against gravity, pushes us to new heights and provides valuable viewpoints with each climb. Lift can be compared to the clinical expertise and the culture within the dental practice. Each dental office has its own set of tools that defines how much lift it’s capable of. At the risk of sounding too touchy-feely, patients are drawn to an office that connects deeply to their clinical and emotional needs. A practice that’s focused on modern technology, continued professional development, and creating a culture by design will undoubtedly climb higher than a practice that does not.

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Staying current in advancing clinical treatment creates a confidence among the team that spills over into the patient experience. Scott J. Manning, in his book The Complete Guide to Creating a Highly Profitable Dental Practice (That You’ll Actually Enjoy), writes about finding the patient’s relevant emotional connection,2 where elite clinical skills are paired with patients’ clinical and emotional needs, creating a practice culture that allows them to come together with synergy and speed.

Key action: Create a plan to adopt new technology next year that attracts your ideal patient.

Weight: Your ideal patient profile

The final force is a direct counterbalance to an aircraft’s lift. Weight, which directly affects the balance and center of gravity of an aircraft, can be likened to various factors influencing the financial viability and practice success. The patient profile plays a significant role in determining the practice’s weight. Understanding the demographics, oral health needs, and preferences of your target patient population allows your practice to tailor its services and marketing efforts accordingly. Monitoring things like treatment acceptance rates is crucial in maintaining a healthy balance between providing optimal care and sustaining financial viability.

If your goal is to become the city’s premier cosmetic dentist, you must first determine if your patient base is one that has the financial resources to afford treatment in your dental office. It’s important to strike a balance between presenting treatment options that address patients’ oral health needs and ensuring the affordability and accessibility of those treatments. If your goal is to reduce PPO-related adjustments and write-offs, you’ll first need to evaluate your procedural majority to ensure that your patients can still pay for you. (Spoiler alert: they can, and you should.)

Key action: Run a report that shows treatment acceptance percentage by procedure to see which treatments your patient base says yes (and no) to most often.

Operating with balance, stability, and joy

Powered flight is nothing short of phenomenal. The way we incorporate this modern miracle into our daily lives has somewhat lessened its wonder. Similarly, if dental practices take the time to break down these four principles into actionable ways to impact their individual trajectories, they will operate with more balance, stability, and joy. 

Editor's note: This article appeared in the December 2023 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.


  1. Four forces on an airplane. Glenn Research Center. NASA.
  2. Manning SJ. The Complete Guide to Creating a Highly Profitable Dental Practice (That You’ll Actually Enjoy). Dental Success Today; 2021.

Daniel Richards is an expert in dental practice operations support and has been consulting with practice owners for over 15 years. He speaks exclusively to dental study groups nationwide. He is the founder of CFO Dental Partners, a fractional CFO consulting group based in Eagle, Idaho. CFO Dental Partners was voted a top 10 virtual CFO firm in 2023 by Financial Services Review magazine. Email or call (208) 297-3921.