Dental office manager profile: Kirsten Zettergren, Blue Back Dental

Kristen Z

January 21, 2013

Kirsten Zettergren
On the right ingredients

Kristen Z

Nearly four years ago, I took a position as a practice manager for a single-doctor practice that had a part-time associate and eight employees. Since then, we’ve had staff turnovers and additions, the associate became partner, and we added one part-time periodontist, a part-time general dentist, and a per diem oral surgeon. In addition to the staff changes, we added new and advanced equipment and saw rapid patient growth. So how do you handle new staff and existing employees who have stuck with the practice and place them all in the perfect position to achieve your practice’s goals? This is very tricky.

There are many ingredients that must be added to get the perfect recipe. Some may think it is impossible, but I was always taught that nothing is impossible.


having a vision

What are your goals for your practice? Growth, stability, patient retention? Visualize your practice in two years. Choose where you want to be and plan ahead. Are you happy with the way your staff is designed now, or are there some employees you’d like to see out of the practice? Take your vision and create a plan. Keep an open mind and be clear with your communication.


having the right people in the right places

We had a long-term assistant who was the best chairside we’ve ever had. Through the changes, we promoted her to lead assistant. Her duties included delegating assistants to do lab work, ordering supplies, training, and scheduling assistants. Over the course of a year, the lead assistant did more paperwork and less assisting. This made the doctors upset because the best assistant wasn’t with them, and it made me discouraged because she wasn’t fulfilling the duties I needed her to do. We wanted to let her go from the position. After several management meetings, we learned that we really did need this assistant to be on our team. We wanted this star assistant back with the doctors, doing what she does best. So after several meetings and frequent communication, the doctors and I decided to keep her as the lead and develop a clinical manager position to take on the larger tasks. This enabled her to get back to more assisting and let her keep the important administrative tasks she wanted. Making this change has made us all happier and has helped the team achieve greater patient satisfaction.


letting people go

A positive result such the one in this example is not always the case. Sometimes it’s necessary to let an employee go. Do not be afraid to make the change. If you ask any doctor who has been in practice for a long time if he ever regretted any of his firings, he will invariably say, “No, as a matter of fact, my only regret is not having done it sooner.” Think of how many practices have people who should not be there, but who are retained because the employer is afraid to pay a higher unemployment rate, or doesn’t want the confrontation or the hassle of hiring new employees. Or the employer may even feel sorry for the employee! The reality is, these employees are costing money — certainly more money than the increased unemployment rates. I don’t mean to sound callous, but if you’re afraid to fire people, you’ll never have the perfect team. Some doctors may take the cowardly approach of making things so unpleasant for an employee that he or she will leave. This is the wrong approach. It creates a terrible working environment for other employees. Step up and let the underperformers go — no matter what your personal thoughts may be. Remember that your practice is a business, and you need to grow and make money.


the main ingredient

Clear communication with your staff and doctors, an open mind about team members and their areas of expertise, and planning ahead for your practice’s future are key ingredients to getting that perfect recipe. Regular management meetings with doctors and managers are very important in order to resolve issues and concerns before they escalate. Check in with your staff regularly. Schedule regular department meetings to address issues in specific areas. Ask employees how things are going, seek their thoughts on new systems and protocols, and then really listen to them. Making changes based on their suggestions will make them feel like you really care about what they think about the practice. They’ll be enthusiastic when you use their suggestions, and they’ll keep looking for ways to help improve protocols. When you see discrepancies in performance, address the issue with the staff member in private. Document the conversation and follow proper human resource protocols. If no improvement occurs, you have reason to let the employee go.


integrating the new with the old

Bridge long-term and new employees together by using the expertise of existing employees’ knowledge, beliefs, and strengths and blending it with the fresh perspective of the new employees. Your new team members will have new ideas, and while the existing staff may resist the information at first, over time they will see how those new ideas will work to their benefit as well.


encouraging professional development and new equipment

Be sure to schedule time for staff training. Staff members may resist new systems and equipment if they are not properly trained. Make time for salespeople to come in and implement proper training for your staff. Once they understand how to use the new equipment and how it will service patients’ needs better, your team members will want to use it to help patients. We all know the expenses of new dental equipment, and that we buy it to make us stand out and to enhance proper diagnoses. Employees need to know the effect that new equipment has on the practice. It’s the same with new systems — if they understand why you are implementing new protocols, they will adapt to it more easily. This is not always an easy process, but if you approach it carefully, it will indeed benefit your practice and your daily protocols.


the practice culture

The culture of the practice is very personal to you and the doctor. As the manager, you have connected with your doctor because you have the same beliefs — from the care of patients to the financial growth of the practice. It is your duty to create the right team for your practice’s culture. Educating the staff on your practice culture is just as important as educating your patients about their dental health. When your staff sees how much you care for your patients’ concerns and overall dental health, they will respect you more. The value you put on patients reflects on the values staff members put on their jobs. The result is the perfect recipe for success.

Kirsten has more than 20 years of experience in the dental field. She began as an assistant and worked her way up to practice administrator. Kirsten is the founder and president of Connecticut Practice Manager Solutions, an office manager study group. She retains a certification in medical and dental billing. She is also an active member and fellow of the American Association of Dental Office Managers.

Previous dental office manager profiles:
Dental office manager profile: Lori Cline, Discovery Dental
Dental office manager profile: Danielle Dailey, Kathryn Ehmann & Associates

Author Lauren BurnsLauren Burns is the editor of Proofs magazine and the email newsletters RDH Graduate and Proofs. She is currently based out of New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @ellekeid.

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