Shake Hands

What they don’t (but should) teach in dental school

Feb. 15, 2021
It's well known that the business side of dentistry is overlooked in dental school. These business tips from Matthew Newman will help new dentists down a path toward success.

Dental school is cool, but did you receive many business tips? Dental school is expensive, so you can’t blame the staff for focusing on clinical instruction. However, practicing good dentistry is only one part of a successful business model. There are steps dentists can take to prevent their staffs from coming to them with challenges they don’t want to deal with, or worse yet, don’t understand.

I’ve created a list of concrete tips that will help any new dental practice owner get an immediate jump on becoming a smart businessperson. Embrace the logic within these ideas to not only save money, but also impress your team with your decision making. Most likely, you’ll have fewer interruptions while you’re focusing on your patients.

Order smart and be loyal

Since COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives, the supply chain landscape has been substantially changed. Never in recent history has any event disrupted business with the worldwide magnitude that this pandemic has, forcing people in all industries to reevaluate a multitude of needs and habits. Personal protective equipment stock alone called for several changes, but there are shortages, delays, or backorders on everything from medicine to replacement parts. Now is the time to order early, and to consider ordering by the case for items you use frequently (if the items won’t eat up too much storage space). Many staffs worry because they order something one or two days before they run out, and they simply will not be able to perform an upcoming procedure without it. It isn’t the distributor’s fault. It’s the pandemic.

Do yourself a favor and assign inventory management to someone on staff who knows the products and how much you use of each item. You may carry more inventory, but better that than running out and repeatedly playing the “get crazy until I get it” game.

This is where loyalty comes in and makes a big difference. Every major distributor has a loyalty program designed to measure how much business you conduct with them. I’ve said time again, it’s child’s play to go back and forth because one vendor has a few items a bit cheaper than another. A smart dental team takes the time to understand the rewards programs. These include spending promotions to qualify for rebates, point per dollar spending for many of the items bought, and best of all, discounts on goods and services themselves. The time spent searching for cheaper products pales in comparison to the money you save by using the service team of the company from which you order all of your supplies. Bonus tip: Because you spend all of your money with them, you also get faster service. 

Embrace technology

It seems like revolutionary new dental technology innovates the dental industry on some level almost constantly. There is a lot to learn with each new toy, and you don’t have to do it alone. Good team members want to take this off your hands, and your willingness to let them in on the fun will encourage them to stick around. Those coming out of dental school today are just dying to get their hands on the new equipment, but few have the money to purchase their own. You will attract better talent if you prove to be a cutting-edge dentist rather than one struggling to stay relevant with ‘80s equipment and decor. Your current and future employees will know it, and so will your patients. Technology and innovation dazzles.

Learn basic accounting

Many doctors leave the ordering, service calls, and bill-paying duties to others while they focus solely on dentistry. Consider this a bit of willful ignorance. I’ve seen many accounts get so far behind that when it gets to the point where the doctor examines the invoices, he or she is confused about such things as service labor rates, supply pricing, or billing cycles. Understanding the monthly cycle of invoices is basic, but very helpful. Essentially, on one date each month the billing stops so that the record of everything billed that month can be prepared and sent out in one statement.

Also, be aware of fixed pricing items such as the hourly service rates and monthly eservices (claims processing), and have a basic understanding of your supply pricing. A good sales rep will get you all of this information and will help you capitalize on competitive pricing and promotions (see loyal customer in number one), but it helps if you know the basic topics. Some pricing benefits are applied automatically based on your order history and whether you meet the requirements for the company’s loyalty program. Bonus tip: If you aren’t prepared to throw all your business their way, don’t tell them you need better pricing. It’s called a partnership for a reason.

Choose, treat, and empower your team wisely

As I said, technology will attract talented people, but nurturing their talent and keeping them engaged is your job. It’s important for any business owner to have empathy. In other words, be able to put yourself in their shoes and see things from another perspective. Treat them as you would a family member until they give you a reason not to. Take things such as emergencies and hardships in stride; they’ll appreciate the absence of stress from having to tell their employer when things go wrong, and that goodwill goes a long way in building loyalty, honesty, and mutual respect. Wouldn’t we all prefer a boss who didn’t harp on our problems later?

Allow your team to make some lower-level decisions. Maybe it’s ordering decisions, maybe it’s adjusting the bill of someone who can’t pay (within limits of course). Letting your team members get some decision making under their belts will help when you assign them more responsibilities. Obviously, you’ll empower some people more than others, but hopefully the main idea is the same. If that seems like a daunting idea, perhaps you can test the water by asking their opinions in order to evaluate their judgment before handing over more responsibility. Bonus tip: The more staff members you develop and trust, the less you must pile on your own plate. Extra bonus tip: Make sure one of your team members can work on social media for you. It’s an absolute must in today’s digital world.

Friend a transition broker

I recently wrote an article on the importance of transition experts. It does not cost a thing to talk shop with these people. They exist for one purpose: to know everything about their local dental community. Long term, they’d love to help you when you need to bring in another doctor, sell or relocate your practice, or purchase a practice. In the meantime, all they want to do is learn about you and your practice and advise you on decisions that add value to your business. Have you seen The Godfather? Think about having your own, private consigliere (said in my best Marlon Brando voice). Your sales rep can put you in touch with the local team. These experts are crucial in the years before you retire. And why not get a jump on the future by getting to know them and learn the steps to getting out?

I hope these ideas bring about positive changes in your thinking and practice. What may be second nature to some might be hidden in the back of the minds of others. A good thing to remember is that good, multitask hiring (look for multiple skill sets in one person) will avoid a lot of frustrating moments. As a rule, assembling a team with an abundance of knowledge and skill sets will give you a lot less to worry about in the long run. Here’s to happy days ahead.

Matthew Newman is the operations manager for the Baltimore/DC/Northern Virginia region of Patterson Dental. A 20-plus year veteran of operational management, he has spent most of his career in the fields of distribution center management and hospitality. He writes articles on operational management, office synergy, and a variety of other topics. He may be contacted by direct message on LinkedIn.