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Mentorship is invaluable for new dentists and experienced practitioners alike, but who bears the cost?

Recognizing the shared cost of mentorship in dentistry

March 27, 2024
Mentorship is invaluable for new dentists and experienced practitioners alike, but who bears the expense?

Mentorship is an invaluable investment in the future of dentistry. It reflects a deep understanding that the growth and success of young dentists are intertwined with the vitality and innovation within a dental practice. In an era where mentorship is becoming a rarity, it is crucial to recognize its immense worth and embrace it as a shared responsibility.

The costs associated with hiring an associate dentist are daunting, and not just at first glance; they continue throughout the associate’s stay. The owners see them on QuickBooks ledges, they see the dollars being withdrawn from checking accounts. It is only when they are viewed as a long-term investment that those costs reveal their true value. What most associates don’t realize, however, is that they themselves might also carry the cost of this mentorship; it’s a crucial part of the working formula. Ultimately, mentorship not only benefits the mentee but also enhances the quality of care for patients, promotes growth within a practice, and cultivates a learning environment that goes beyond traditional employer-employee dynamics.

The mentor’s investment

The decision to bring an associate dentist into a dental practice is akin to planting a seed in fertile soil, nurturing it with dedication, and patiently caring for it until it blossoms. It is a testament to the belief that the future of dentistry is not merely in the hands of technology and technique, but in the shared wisdom and collective growth of its practitioners. And though most seeds cost pennies, the nurturing of said associate is a bit more costly. The expense associated with hiring an associate dentist—be it advertising, training, legal support, or the priceless allocation of time for mentorship—speak volumes of a dental practice owner's commitment to not just the growth of their practice, but to the profession at large. Having interviewed many potential doctors for our Happy Tooth office, I began to understand that leading junior dentists, opening their eyes to their role as healers, and educating them on the potential of their own financial success is as rare as leaving an unfilled cavity and a lot like discovering a hidden treasure. But what I also found was that, essentially, it was assumed by the interviewee that the costs of said mentorship would be incurred solely by the practice; it went unmentioned and forgotten that this burden might fall on the shoulders of both parties.

The tangible investment of financial resources once again is proof of the depth to which a practice owner is committed to nurturing this new graduate. Many associates may not fully appreciate that announcing the hiring of a dentist, both locally and nationally, can cost upwards of $4,000. This figure varies based on the duration of the advertisement, the anticipated number of applicants, and the decision to include any photographs or logos of the practice. Crafting a comprehensive contract with the meticulous guidance of a law firm specialized in dental agreements and the subsequent negotiations can amount to approximately $5,000. The process of integrating the associate into PPO contracts typically stands at about $1,700. For our practice in particular, this integration process also encompasses coaching sessions with the Productive Dentist Academy—valued at as much as $30,000 annually—completion of online training modules for which the associate is compensated, and a workshop weekend placing the coaching expenses alone at $35,000. Most importantly, the one-on-one time dedicated to the associate involves weekly sessions (or more frequent) focused on communication enhancement, case review, treatment presentation discussions, and, if desired by the associate, instruction in clinical skills. For a high-producing owner doctor whose time is valued at $1,300 an hour, these mentoring commitments represent an investment of about $50,000.

Summing up these expenditures, we arrive at a monumental total of $97,500 annually. It is a profound illustration of the investment poured into an associate’s development, and marketing to build up the associate’s following is not included in that budget. Truly, much of that cost comes from the practice’s profit, and specifically from the owner’s bottom line. As significant and discernable as this investment is, (imagine taking $100,000 off your paycheck) we know that it goes beyond mere monetary transactions; it reflects a profound understanding that the growth of an associate dentist is intrinsically linked to the continued success of the practice.

The mentee’s cost

Unfortunately, the shared responsibility in nurturing a partnership between the seasoned and the novice is not without its tangible costs to the associate. These figures represent the potentially lean times a practice might endure and the painstaking effort it takes for a practice to cultivate a patient base that resonates with the unique skills of the associate.

For example, our new associate loves to take care of kids, and she is passionate about cosmetic makeovers, neither of which have been front and center for our practice in the past five, 10, even 15 years. Waiting to build up that community of future Happy Tooth patients is indeed a bitter pill to swallow for associates already submerged in the financial burdens of their undergraduate and dental school educations.

The task of building up new clientele for a practice also leans heavily on the associate’s readiness to learn and to stand firm amidst the discomfort brought by change. Change, inherently challenging and unsettling for many, involves an expectation for new dentists to step beyond their comfort zones—soliciting referrals and reviews, a notion far removed from their dental education. For those of a quieter, more introspective disposition, this might stray far from their imagined professional pathway. Yet, it’s precisely this aspect, if unattended to, that can severely limit growth. Dental school prepared new graduates to be clinicians above all, leaving them unversed in the realities of overhead costs, the value of continuing education, or the benefits of a consulting network. Equipped merely with diplomas, they emerge as capable interpreters of x-rays, yet often find themselves at a loss when it comes to conveying observations to those in their care.

A shared responsibility

Many practices believe that the step of mentorship can be skipped, instead replaced with a handsome per diem for the new graduate. This compensation package might last from several months all the way to a year. What happens in those instances, when the time is not taken to teach the new dentist communication and treatment presentation skills? Often, at the one-year mark, the associate’s production isn’t enough to cover their own personal expenditures. They have not been taught appropriately how to educate patients on the conditions of their mouth or how to discuss financial burdens often standing in the way of patients accepting proposed treatment. As they discover this in the beginning of year two, they slash their home budget and begin eating ramen noodles, then move on to another associate position across town with another healthy per diem. Thus, the cycle continues. This cycle is unhealthy for new graduates, patients, and owners, as their bottom lines remain leaner than might want to see.

The cycle can and must be broken. It’s broken through a shared investment into the guidance of a new graduate that extends beyond a mere dollar figure. The price tag may come in the form of starting on the ground floor, entering into a relationship with a growing practice that is committed to building a specific patient base for the associate. This takes time, during which the associate’s earnings aren’t as high as they might have anticipated.

The expenditure into advisership is steep, no doubt, for all parties involved. It is only when seen through the lens of long-term investment that it reveals its true worth—not in a dollar amount, but in the quality of care that patients receive, the advancement of dental practices, and the cultivation of a learning environment that transcends the traditional employee-employer relationship. It is through this nurturing of talent, this dedication to the profession’s future, that a dental practice owner’s true commitment is measured, ensuring that the field of dentistry remains vibrant, compassionate, and forever evolving. This reflection extends a call to action for both seasoned practitioners and new graduates. To the former, it serves as a reminder of the profound impact mentorship can have on the profession’s future, urging established doctors to reduce their take-home pay with significant risk to pass on their wisdom. To the latter, it offers encouragement to seek more than just a position, but a pathway to growth, learning, and professional fulfillment. Seeking that position comes with the understanding that there is a tangible, observable cost that comes in the form of a potentially reduced income. But with the risk of committing to genuine mentorship comes a significant benefit—of discovery, and growth, of improvement, and ultimately, a legacy of enhancing the lives a new dentist touches through their craft. This legacy, supported by the elder’s hand-holding, carries a significantly reduced timeline, propelling a new graduate into financial reward much quicker. This is our time to embrace a journey together and nurture the future of dentistry, one seed at a time. And it doesn’t have to remain a rarity. As we invest in each other’s growth, we ensure that our profession remains vibrant, empathetic, and ever-evolving. The power of mentorship is truly immeasurable.