Success: Are you a successful dentist?

March 1, 2009
As I begin this column, I would like to first thank Dr. Joe Blaes, who has confidence in me to bring my experiences to you — my colleagues — as a new dentist.

by Tyler Lee Pendergrass, DDS

For more on this topic, go to and search using the following key words: success, Dr. Joe Blaes, new dentist, mentors, hierarchy of needs, Dr. Tyler Lee Pendergrass.

As I begin this column, I would like to first thank Dr. Joe Blaes, who has confidence in me to bring my experiences to you — my colleagues — as a new dentist. I have been out of dental school for almost 10 years, and the wealth of knowledge I have gained in that time has been tremendous. I want to share with you my ideas and experiences, both negative and positive, so you can apply them to your practice. I also could not do this article without the support of my wife, Dina, my daughters Makenna and Bentley, and my dental office partner, Dr. Eric Wilkie.

As dentists, we are confronted every day with a multitude of problems, questions, decisions, and frustrations. These vary daily and involve members of your staff, patients, insurance companies, building maintenance, equipment failures, and the list continues. Like each of you, I try to take care of patients to the best of my ability. I hope I can make a difference in each of their lives.

To me, though, an underlying question comes up on a routine basis. Am I successful? This question really never is completely answered. But I hope that, as a practitioner, you think you are successful.

Success comes in many forms, and changes much like the goals we set throughout our career. Success is defined as “to come out well or to attain a desired object and/or end.” In dental school, making an “A” on a final exam or passing national boards might be considered a success.

Success next could come from the first crown that you seat or your first surgical extraction as a third-year dental student. As fourth-year students, we remember finishing clinical assessments/assignments, as well as national boards.

But as a new dentist (one who is out of school for less than 10 years), this will change as you start repaying student loans, worrying about new patient flow, finding the optimal practice to purchase, managing staff, and balancing your practice life with family life. Later, as you enter your twilight practice years, finding the best partner to purchase your practice or worrying about retirement funding might be a focus.

When I think about successful people who guided me and helped form my practice philosophy, I recall many of my mentors. My first mentors were Drs. Richard Smith, Jim Hollifield, and David Duncan from Amarillo, Texas. Each has an upstanding character and a sincere desire to treat patients with honest and genuine care, placing patient needs first over their own needs.

My mentors instilled in me a sense of value, and I hope that you, too, can remember the first lessons taught by your mentors. All of us learned “Primum non nocere” in dental school. This is one of the first precepts of the Hippocratic oath to “First do no harm.”

As clinicians, patients trust us to care for them as we would ourselves. Although this is fundamental, in struggling economic times this concept might be overlooked by our selfish desires.

Success is not something given upon graduation from dental school. I personally think of success like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Throughout life, we desire to accomplish our goals and attain a higher standard with each passing day.

The need for self-actualization could be likened to being successful. Some may argue, though, that you never truly obtain Maslow's top level of self-actualization or — in our case — success.

This is far from the truth. I constantly meet successful dentists who love their practices, enjoy working hard, and realize a true joy from the daily grind. I think that if you work hard and put your patients' needs and wants above yours, you will obtain an inner satisfaction that will be far greater than you can ever imagine. In addition, your practice will speak for itself.

If you think that you are a successful dentist, mentor a young new dentist. Sharing knowledge is key to success.

Tyler Lee Pendergrass, DDS, practices full time in Amarillo, Texas. After growing up in Amarillo, he returned following his graduation from the Baylor University College of Dentistry in 1999. He bought into his current dental practice in 2000. Send Dr. Pendergrass an e-mail at [email protected].

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