5 things these young dentists wish they had known when they graduated

These dentists, who graduated from dental school 10 years ago, wish they had known what they know now. They want to share some of their hard-earned lessons with other new dentists.

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Drs. Marcus Neff, Ryder Waldron, and Troy Stevens graduated together from dental school in 2003 and are all currently in separate private practices. In their 13 years of practicing dentistry, they learned they were all experiencing similar challenges. They wished they'd been aware of these upcoming challenges when they graduated. This led them to write the books, “So You Want To Be A Dentist?” and “So Now You're A Dentist?” to help educate future and new dentists, and maybe help them avoid some of the mistakes they made.

1. Debt is real
This seems obvious, but debt is real money. We admit when we were in dental school and signing loan documents for $30,000 or more at a time, it didn’t seem quite real. We never saw most of that money. What we did see was deposited in a bank account and we used it to live on.

We wish we’d taken more time to think about that money. To us it almost felt like a paycheck. It was just money we were being paid, and it was ours to spend on things that everybody spends money on. But those student loans were just that, LOANS. That money had to be repaid, with interest, so it wasn’t free money. That realization is critical when you are making the decision to borrow money for school, to buy a practice, to purchase equipment, or for whatever it is you need.

Loans will erode your ability to make and take home money. Repaying those loans will affect the choices you’re able to make. Those loans slow down how soon you can enjoy financial freedom and really begin to live your life.

2. Teeth are attached to people
Again, this is obvious, right? Before dental school and for the first couple of years in dental school, drilling and fixing teeth seemed pretty straightforward to us. It was almost kind of mechanical. We just followed the steps. Cut here. Bond there. Pack this. Shape that. Boom! Done.

But once you start performing these tasks, you start to realize the simple mechanical steps of restoring a tooth are one thing, but the person you’re doing these things to is another. That person has emotions. That person has fears. And that person has expectations.

Those and a host of other things affect your ability to perform the dentistry. A patient’s demands and emotions can affect your ability to focus on the task at hand and perform it to the highest degree of quality and excellence possible.

When a patient is flinching and squirming, it’s easy for you to become a little nervous. When you’re nervous, it’s normal to just want to get something done and get the patient out of the chair. When a patient tells you they hate the dentist, it’s natural to feel offended and not feel as compassionate toward them. But keep yourself out of this mindset.

3. New stuff does not equal lots of patients
Dental suppliers and sales reps will eagerly tell you about the latest and greatest in dental equipment. The lady at the interior design store will happily sell you beautiful carpets and furnishings. All of these salespeople insist that you need a beautiful and well appointed office with the latest technology and newest dental equipment. It doesn’t always work that way.

The majority of practices need a nice facility with up-to-date technology and equipment. But it seldom needs to be brand-new, 5-star hotel nice. In the majority of towns where the majority of dentists will practice, it’s smart to have an attractive and up-to-date facility. But there’s a strong argument that going all out and having a boutique practice with all brand new and high-end stuff will work against you.

For one, all that high-end and brand and new stuff costs a lot of money (meaning, debt). For another, the majority of people really only want to receive care in a clean, comfortable office, and that the equipment and materials in the practice are up to date. They really don’t care if your carpets cost a fortune or the countertops are Italian marble. In fact, most patients will look at those things and assume your prices are high, even when they aren’t. Be aware of where you practice and of the patient population you serve.

4. Dental insurance limits your freedom
It’s unrealistic in today’s world to think that you can practice dentistry without accepting dental insurance as a form of payment. It has been around so long and so many people rely on it that you pretty much have to accept insurance. But know that when you sign up as a PPO dentist, in many cases the insurance company, not you, will have the greater influence on your patients.

The insurance company, not you, will determine what’s a fair and reasonable price for your services. The insurance company, not you, will “determine” what treatment is best for your patient. And like it or not, a lot of patients will listen to their dental insurance carrier when deciding what treatment they receive.

Many patients look at dentistry as just another commodity or service, one for which they need to find the best “price.” Because their dental insurance “pays” for their dental care, they’re likely to only seek the services that the dental insurance will pay for. So signing up with dental insurance companies is likely necessary. But know that when you do, you’ll limit your ability to practice dentistry on your terms and be paid what you legitimately deserve. Some of your freedom is the price you will pay.

5. Your team can make or break you
People come to the dentist to have their teeth fixed. They want to visit a dentist who is great at what he or she does and who is a nice person. We don’t mean to burst your bubble, but you probably aren’t the only reason or even the biggest reason your patients come to your office.

Patients see you for maybe 10 minutes when they visit your office for a “cleaning.” They will spend a little more time with you when their teeth need “fixing.” But the majority of a patient’s time is spent with “Judy” at the front desk, or with “Sally” the hygienist. Even when you’re “fixing” their teeth, their mouth is occupied for a majority of the appointment. “Jenny” the assistant is the one socializing with a patient before you come into the operatory, and she’s the one helping them after you leave.

So it’s obvious that several other people spend a lot more time with your patients than you, the dentist, do. Therefore it is critical that these people be great in the role they play in your practice. If your patient walks in the front door and Judy is too busy on the computer to greet them by name and offer a warm smile and a handshake, that patient isn’t going to have a great start at your office.

If Sally is rushed and doesn’t have time to greet the patient and ask a few questions but just gets down to business, how will that make the patient feel? Most patients want to be acknowledged. They want to feel like they’re the star of the show. They want to know that Sally remembers them and is interested in what’s going on in their life.

If a patient feels unappreciated and rushed, it becomes pretty easy for a person to go somewhere else. So having the right team members in the right positions can literally make or break you.

We promise. If you take this advice that we learned the hard way to heart, you will have a much smoother start to your career as a dentist. Welcome to a great profession!

Drs. Neff, Stevens, and Waldron are coauthors of the book “So You Want To Be A Dentist?: What you Must Know to Succeed in Dentistry.” The book can be purchased at lulu.com, the iBookstore, Amazon.com, and other digital retailers. They also maintain the website dentalrealist.com.

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