Th 147340

Mulling Dr. Mueller

April 1, 2004
Some parents mark walls to measure their children's growth over time. Much the same, an Ohio pediatric dentist measures her practice's growth by reflecting on her children's development through the years.

By Kristen Wright, Assistant Editor

Some parents mark walls to measure their children's growth over time. Much the same, an Ohio pediatric dentist measures her practice's growth by reflecting on her children's development through the years. It's a practical approach for professionals moonlighting as parents, says Dr. Elizabeth Stockley Mueller, a 47-year-old mother of two in the Cincinnati suburb of Montgomery, population 10,163.

Dr. Mueller says pediatric dentistry has allowed her to work part-time on a livable income and spend quality time as a wife and mother. Her practice and office hours continue growing with her children. She and her husband, Mark, have a 17-year-old daughter, Christine, who will leave home in the fall to study dance, and a 16-year-old son, John. Dr. Mueller plans to increase her workload to make the most of an impending empty nest.

"I think it's been good for my family," Dr. Mueller says. "It's a nice way to make a living because you get to do your healing art, but you have time for your family. You can really have a nice balance of family and profession in dentistry. As long as you can live on your income, you can work as many or as few days as you want to keep your skill up. My kids are getting ready to leave, so I'm glad I have this in my life. At least it's not going to be a complete void in my life."

Dr. Mueller emerged from a pediatric dental residency at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center during the recession of 1983, when jobs were scarce for many professionals. She worked two part-time jobs two days each at a welfare clinic and as an independent contractor at a private general practice.

"They had a room they weren't using, and I needed more room," Dr. Mueller says. "My dad was a really skilled craftsman. He built these beautiful cabinets and brought them over and installed them all. That was like 20 years ago — they still use them there. He was good. I think I get that craftsmanship from him."

Dr. Mueller's children were born shortly thereafter. Since the early stages of her career, she has found comforting balances in her professional and home life.

"I quit the clinic job and worked just the two days a week while I had two children," she says. "When I had little babies, I worked Tuesday, Thursday, and a half day Saturday. Quite frankly, when you're first getting going, you only have three days of work."

Dr. Mueller's routine of working two and a half days a week lasted seven years.

"Maybe sometimes it seems a long time in general practice — the seven years — but I don't regret that," she says. "I learned a lot. I don't feel like I'm not keeping up. I did when they (the children) were little, but that was only for a while. I really have enjoyed my kids a lot. When I worked a half day on Saturday, their dad watched them. My mother-in-law watched them Tuesday and Thursday. We had a lot of family support, and I've always been able to find very nice babysitters to come to the house. The kids have always had a paid nanny."

Dr. Mueller purchased side-by-side condos in 2002, bringing the total square footage of her practice to 2,400.
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Dr. Mueller says she found nurturing, trustworthy nannies by placing ads in her local newspapers and church bulletins. She would have remained happy had the routine lasted, she says, but her husband's job loss in 1990 sparked her to start her own practice.

"He was going to have to find a new job, and I thought, 'I have this wonderful education, and I need to use it,'" Dr. Mueller says. "In order to really practice pediatric dentistry like I wanted, I really needed to have my own office. The kids were 5 and 3. The time was right."

Dr. Mueller rented a 710-square-foot, two-operatory office and borrowed $65,000 for equipment. She and Mark renovated the office themselves with the help of Charlie Hoffman, a dental supply representative for Dental Health Products.

"He's been my dental rep for 20 years," Dr. Mueller says. "He's the one who's knowledgeable, not us. He was there through the beginning. We had to put all the plumbing in for the dental equipment. We didn't have to move any walls, but we had to do the decorating. All the painting and wallpapering and cabinet setting we did ourselves."

In 1993, Dr. Mueller upgraded, purchasing a 1,200-square-foot orthodontist's office for $122,000. The three-operatory condo was in the same complex as the office she had been renting.

"We got more room, a nicer waiting room, a nicer business office," Dr. Mueller says. "I rehabbed the space myself for about $25,000. We were getting better at this rehab thing. We still worked the four days, but Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday."

That cycle continued six years, until Dr. Mueller hired an associate to work one day a week. The addition expanded office hours to five days a week, with Dr. Mueller working four of them.

"Overhead was 50 percent, but we were maxed out in our current facility," Dr. Mueller says. "The way the office was configured, we had as much going on in that space as we could. If we were going to grow, we had to move."

Dr. Mueller searched for two years before purchasing side-by-side condos for $254,000 in 2002. Again, she had to look no further than her current condo complex. The move doubled her square footage to 2,400. She admits stealing design ideas, but she intentionally stayed away from office-design seminars because her practice demanded so many custom features, she says.

"This time we had a professional contractor, Core Resources. Oh, that felt so good!" Dr. Mueller says. "We spent $60,000 on more equipment for a total of six operatories. I spent about $500,000 on the total package, and the indebtedness is currently $212,000. I sold the old office for $140,000 and applied all the money to the build-out. I'm still working four days a week, and the associate is working two days a week. We would like to get the overhead down to 50 percent again — the kids will need college money."

Dr. Mueller's staff includes her associate of five years, Dr. Marie Callen; two dental hygienists, Jayna Frazier, of four years, and Rosemary Bonser, of five years; scheduling coordinator of 10 years, Sandra Carroll; financial coordinator of three years, Jennifer Lee; and two dental assistants, Cathy Doughman, of seven years, and Ela Sertovic, of two years.

Patients big and small may choose from three sinks of varying heights to make their visits as comfortable as possible. Dr. Mueller's patients range in age from babies to 65.
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"Ela's a Bosnian refugee from the war," Dr. Mueller says. "I was one of four sponsors for her family, and she's come to work for me. We were going around trying to find her a job, and she couldn't read and write English very well, so I was like, 'Phooey on this! You can come work for me.' She's been through so many bad things that she really adjusts our perspectives. "

Dr. Mueller also credits consultant Anne Podraza at Levin Group.

"I've had a lot of help — I ask for it, too," Dr. Mueller says. "The other thing that's made my life so much better is my accountant, Mary Zigtema. She's my big sister. My sister has kept me so organized and so on-target. She doesn't let me make any mistakes."

Dr. Mueller's outside sources have helped life inside the office become less stressful, she says. She and her staff have access to a private rest room in addition to an underground portion of the office with a small kitchen. Amenities include a six-chair table, full-size refrigerator, microwave, toaster oven, sink, and lockers for 12 employees. A laundry bay includes a washer, dryer, uniform storage, and a vented six-tank closet for nitrous and oxygen tanks with outside keyless entry for easy delivery.

In retrospect, Dr. Mueller says she would have included a stove and dishwasher in her design — she likes to cook during lunch, and often her family is there. Her husband and children frequently help out at the office.

"I think they think everybody's mom is like me," Dr. Mueller says. "They work there, so they know what it's like. They're pretty involved. If we're short-staffed, they're expected to work."

Dr. Mueller describes her work as serious, but not solemn. Bright colors fill the office, but clinical concepts drive the floor plan. Before construction, Dr. Mueller posted her design plans in the waiting room and encouraged patient suggestions.

"Each department — hygiene, dental assisting, and front office — met with the designer separately and discussed needs and wants with the designer, supplier, and cabinet subcontractor," Dr. Mueller says. "We all had numerous long meetings to discuss what we each wanted in our work space."

Now, everyone's happy, she says. Arriving patients receive new oral hygiene products as staff members disclose them and supervise brushing in the oral hygiene station. Three sinks of varying heights accommodate patients as tall as 6 feet 6 inches. They also have access to a full ADA-compliant rest room. From there, patients move to a hygiene bay equipped with four Royal GP-16 chairs and mobile carts. Following the prophylaxis, it's on to the X-ray alcove. Then, patients move to the fluoride station where they receive four-minute-per-arch fluoride treatments and may amuse themselves with video games.

"A mom can bring her kids and kind of line them all up there. I really like that aspect of it," Dr. Mueller says. "Before, we used to have a three-chair bay. Sometimes that could be stressful, so in our new office we made two quiet rooms with doors and observation windows in them so parents can look in and see how they're doing. Anybody who's struggling can be in the back, and anybody who's not can be in the four-chair bay."

Parents may view X-rays in the doctors' station located in the hallway. Then, parents and patients make appointments, payments, and check out.

"We feature an 18-button communicator system, computers in every operatory, and a very nice sound system. We run DOX software — the pedo program — with KSB support," Dr. Mueller says.

Despite the staff's best efforts, sometimes they run across "unhappy campers."

"You get age-appropriate behavior," Dr. Mueller says. "My oldest patient is older than I am. He's 65 and disabled. Otherwise, my oldest are like 22. My youngest is 6 months. We get babies who fall or have accidents."

She also gets patients who don't want to leave.

"If they're out of school, they definitely have to move on. With some of them you have to say, 'I understand you got married last summer U I hear you got a job U grad school does not count.' I've been in practice long enough that I'm working on kids of my kids. We have a lot of second-generation patients — that's the highest compliment."

Dr. Mueller says taking time off for family activities is easy when you're a pediatric dentist because parents of her patients understand the joys of parenthood.

"You get your dance schedule and you get your dental schedule and you work when you want. In pediatric dentistry, people understand that," she says. "You're free to work really hard, and you're free to choose when you do it. My advice to young dentists is to let the practice grow along with the kids. Make time for the kids early, but keep your professional life current by working part-time. I can sit still and make dance costumes, and I can sit still and work on teeth."

Dr. Mueller may be reached at (513) 791-3660 and 9200 Montgomery Road Suite 4B, Montgomery, Ohio, 45242.

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