How to burn out as a dentist

Jan. 1, 2006
Dentistry is a great profession. We all know that.

Dentistry is a great profession. We all know that. We also know there are too many dentists who burn out and live a life of drudgery, going into work every day and wishing they were anywhere else. I have listened to many practice management consultants describe the typical client. The description is always the same - 10 to 15 years out of dental school, deep in debt, behind on bills, and profoundly unhappy. What is the recipe for this disaster?

The first ingredient is to operate on someone else’s vision. As an associate dentist, you are expected to operate someone else’s practice with no control of the vision that drives the practice. Having responsibility without control becomes very frustrating. Additional frustration develops when the owner- dentist and the associate dentist have diametrically opposing needs to both earn more money.

The second ingredient is to significantly increase your personal debt before you achieve some form of practice ownership.Through dental school, most of us kept our consumer desires on hold. My first year after dental school I purchased a new house and two new cars, all with minimal down payments and maximum debt. Five years later when the cars were paid off and virtually worthless, I made a quick calculation. If I had invested the cost of the two cars in stock in the auto company, that investment would have been worth a little more than $100,000. That was a pretty significant amount of money in 1985.

The third ingredient in the burn-out process is to “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead.” We exemplify this attitude when we move ahead with a practice purchase, even when the lender is reticent to lend the full amount. We hear many stories of highly successful individuals financing a business with credit cards and leased equipment. I have done this twice. I made it work and I count it among the stupid things I have done in my life, ranking it about equal to my motorcycle accident. Trust me, you don’t want to do this!

The fourth ingredient is to ignore truth and fail to confront performance.The late Dr. Jim Pride, in his management lectures, asked a room full of dentists to think about an employee who had performance issues. He then asked them to write down how long they knew about this. The average answer was about a year. If we are failing to confront the behaviors of our staff, we should look in the mirror and confront our own behavior.

The fifth ingredient in the burn-out process is to get behind on your bills and stop paying taxes.It is very easy to miss a payment or two of your personal quarterly tax deposits. It also is one of the most expensive and stressful loans you can take. When you first take this money, it may be six months or more before the IRS notices. By then, you can be even deeper in trouble.

The sixth ingredient is a major thoroughfare to “burn-out city.”Allow the stress of your practice to spill over into your personal life and relationships. The most important factor in your resilience is your support system. The quickest way to burn out in dentistry is to alienate those who support you - yell at your spouse, miss your children’s activities, avoid talking with your friends. If you want your burnout to last for years, treat everyone badly and justify your behavior, because you believe no one understands the trouble you’ve seen.

The final ingredient is to never seek help.The worst piece of advice I ever received in my life was from someone I greatly respect. He said, “Mike, consultants are selling information. They don’t have an exclusive on this information. You can get it elsewhere for free.” He might have been right, but the reality is that virtually none of us are inclined to spend as much effort studying management as we spend studying dentistry. Someone else can study management for us, then teach it to us.

I am intimately aware of the burn-out process in dentistry because I made every mistake in this article except numbers six and seven. I followed a different pathway and discovered a success that I never thought possible. If you see yourself anywhere in these seven ingredients to burnout, stop the process now. Look for the key steps to success in next month’s column.

Dr. Michael Gradeless, a 1980 graduate of Indiana University, practices preventive dentistry in Indianapolis with an emphasis on cosmetics and implants. He is an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University, where he teaches the Pride Institute university curriculum of dental management. He also is the editor for the Indiana Dental Association. Contact him at (317) 841-3130, or e-mail to [email protected].

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