From student to dentist

June 9, 2014
If you're a new dental school graduate, this is a very special time of year. It is the start of a whole new chapter in your life -- the first chapter as a practicing dentist!

By Rick Workman, DMD, founder and chief executive officer, Heartland Dental

If you're a new dental school graduate, this is a very special time of year. It is the start of a whole new chapter in your life -- the first chapter as a practicing dentist! This is a time of great change, new experiences, and new opportunities. I still remember the feeling of realizing that no one had to check off my procedures. You have worked hard to complete your boards and requirements. Now it's time to put all the clinical skills and knowledge you've acquired into action. However, to find all-around success and satisfaction as a dentist, you'll need more than just clinical skills.

Whether starting your own solo practice, becoming a traditional associate, or affiliating with a DSO (dental support organization), you must immediately adopt a leadership mentality. You will be the one your team turns to for guidance and motivation. Dr. Gerald Bell said, "To become a great leader, you must first build yourself, and then build your team."

Set the tone for your team and lead by example. Develop an attitude of expectation for yourself, your team, and your practice. This does not mean an attitude of arrogance or entitlement. The attitude of a servient leader is the best approach. Set specific goals, and allow each person to hold each other (doctor included) accountable. What do you want to accomplish in one year? What do you want to accomplish this month? What do you want to accomplish today?

In addition, instill your goals within your team members so that they can be in sync with your attitude. Your team's attitude is equally as important as yours. To create a team-wide understanding of your expectations, you must communicate your thoughts constantly. But first, you must know what your expectations are. You should not fear your shortcomings. Although we all strive for perfection, there is no such thing. You are human, and you will make mistakes. How you handle those mistakes will ultimately determine what kind of dentist, and leader, you will become. Learn from them, build from them, and move forward.

As you build a great relationship with your team, don't forget about your patients. Early on, it's easy to view patients simply as "teeth" and forget the people behind them. But these people are the reason we do what we do. Put their best interests first. Build strong relationships with each of them based on trust, confidence, and communication. Most patients have a general idea what an extraction, filling, or root canal is, but they may not understand the reason they need a specific procedure. Explain the "why" rather than the "what." Help them realize the full value of their care and how it positively affects their livelihood. Patients who are comfortable, trusting, and well informed will have more confidence in you and the care they receive. Ideally, they will become patients for life.

Although patient care should be the No. 1 priority of a dentist, the fact remains that a practice is a business and must remain viable. Like any other business, certain responsibilities must be managed in order to thrive. You must build your team, manage your accounting, and execute an effective marketing strategy. Balancing these duties, your patients, and your personal life can be challenging. Todays nondental aspects of practice are much more complex than when I graduated, and will undoubtedly become more complex in the future. This is why DSOs exist, to support these extra responsibilities. Whether you are affiliated with a DSO or not, it is in your best interest to understand how these nonclinical areas affect your office.

You have learned much in dental school, but experience is the best teacher. Why not learn from those who have experienced the highs and lows of practicing dentistry? If you become an associate, learn everything you can. If you practice solo, find an experienced dentist to learn from and rely on. Why take years to learn how to be successful on your own when you can build upon the successes and failures of others right now?

Although the road ahead is full of challenges, it is also full of many opportunities to change the lives of your patients and help strengthen this industry. As you transition from student to dentist, maintain a student mentality -- be a dentist who continually seeks out the knowledge and education to advance.

Rick Workman, DMD, is founder and chief executive officer of Heartland Dental. After practicing full-time, Dr. Workman created Heartland Dental, a world-class dental support organization offering affiliated dentists nonclinical, administrative support. Heartland Dental has over 550 affiliated dental offices in 26 states. Dr. Workman may be reached at [email protected].
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