The controversial spouse in the dental practice: Notes from the positive side

The spouse in the dental practice does not always set well with other employees in the practice. But this spouse explains why a spouse in the office is one of the best decisions the dentist can make.

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Yes, I’m the wife in the office, and I’m proud of it. Being the spouse or having your spouse work in your dental office is full of negative connotations. My dentist husband and I have worked side by side for over 25 years building our dental business. Let’s have a candid conversation about the realities of having a spouse work in the dental office. First, let’s establish the value of inviting a spouse to the office.

Over the years my husband and I have hired dental consultants to guide us when we became stuck professionally, and some were more helpful than others. Often they simply reinforced what we already knew. We paid good money for someone to tell us that yes, we should schedule every patient for their next professional dental cleaning before they leave the office. Now, that seems like a no-brainer.

Erdman Dental Staff
The Erdman and Manzoli dental team of Orange City, Florida.
Toni Erdman is in the first row, second from left. Her husband, Robert,
is directly behind her.

The most helpful consultants have been the ones that encouraged us to think about our business and business philosophy; they taught us how to think about what we were doing and to plan our business with intention. Being reactive is exhausting, and being proactive is invigorating. Our tagline—“Respect and Excellence”—our mission statement, and most of our good business practices are the result of these encounters.

There was the consultant who, after privately interviewing our team members, concluded that the wife should not work in the office and should perform her duties from home. We know to expect employee push back about a spouse in the office; it’s inevitable. Therefore it’s imperative that the dentist support his or her spouse. My husband/dentist fired that consultant.

I’m here to tell you, at no charge, that if you’re a dentist in your own private practice guided by your own abilities and energies, and you’re competing against corporate America’s view of dentistry, you need all the help you can get to be competitive—you need your spouse in the office. I’m also here to tell you that owning and operating a private dental practice can be done well and with financial success. The challenges come (and they will) in determining if and how your spouse can support you and your business.

Dental teams must open their minds to how they think about the spouse in the office. “In” the office really means working “on” the business. Whether physically present in the office or as a supportive role from outside, the structure will depend on what the business needs and what the spouse is willing or able to do.

There really is no one model of the spouse in the office. Every dental couple that I’ve met juggles the work responsibilities differently. The role a spouse plays depends largely on their skill sets, the dentist’s support, and the spouse’s willingness to be part of the team.

The spouse who says, “I can’t work with my husband because I want to stay married,” always surprises me. I have two thoughts on this. If you cannot stand to be around one another, then there are other problems that need to be worked out. Second, when spouses work together, they really don’t see each other that much. In a well-run office, the dentist is with a patient, getting ready for a patient, or answering questions about patients.

Working together is more about running the dental practice as business partners. You must recognize your dental practice is a business where the dentist is the main technician. When you’re chairside, all your attention is there. Who is helping you manage the office day-to-day or thinking about the business’ future? You need support from someone you trust.

A great starting place where a spouse can have great impact is your bookkeeping. My business card reads, Business Administrator; it could easily be CFO. Having control of your own business finances is smart business. I balance my books to the penny every month and I review every bill before paying. It allows me to double check the front desk patient checkouts and all the ensuing particulars on a monthly basis. The team knows I’m in the books and cross checking patient account records.

Someone has to pay attention. Embezzlement is a reality. I know offices and businesses that have been hurt and I bet you do too. In Theresa Duncan’s March 2007 “Dental Implant Blog,” she stated, “Almost one out of six dentists have been, will be, or are being embezzled.” A comment posted from an advisor stated, “One in three dentists will be a victim of employee embezzlement during their career.” We have wonderful employees, and it is respectful to them to take unnecessary burdens or potential financial misjudgments out of the employer/employee equation.

This point was driven home at a state dental conference seminar called, “QuickBooks for the Dental Office.” The presenter shared heartbreaking stories of dental offices crushed by the mishandling of finances. It was not the horror stories that impacted me as much as what the presenter did before sharing the office tragedies. She asked if anyone attending was an employee. Everyone in attendance was a business owner. She then proceeded to close the door and say, “You should never allow anyone in your books other than you or your spouse.”

In scenarios where you must allow someone else to write the checks, then only the business owner should have power to sign the checks. This is a matter of checks and balances. Be realistic about the money; if you do not have the time or inclination to keep an eye on the books and billings, then your spouse (think business partner) can do this.

If you’re already working with your spouse in the office and they are handling finances well, the next step is to encourage you and your spouse to think with a business mentality. A simple exercise is to start with control of your work environment. Take a walk around the office from the outside to the inside and view your space from the patient’s point of view. The questions to ask are, “What does the patient really want?” “What will make patients happy?” “What does the business need?”

If your spouse does not work “on” your business, ask the person to read this article. Discuss how they can help support you. Share your vision, and create a vision together for the business.

If your spouse already works with you, I suggest you both read “The E Myth,” by Michael Gerber. Talk about different aspects of the book that relate to your business now.

Empower your spouse to think about the business, let them know that you need their managerial and entrepreneurial insights. Ask them to tour the office. What needs refreshing, is the bathroom clean, are the work areas neat and organized? Listen to their feedback and implement it. You are the ultimate decision maker, and your the team will listen to you. Good luck in pursuing your dental business together!

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