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Successful partnership 101

June 1, 2004
A road map for the courtship and marriage of dental partners, part II

A road map for the courtship and marriage of dental partners, part II

By Flossie Riesner

Editor's Note: The first part of this article appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Dental Equipment & Materials. You can find the article online at

Of all the challenges faced by the dental practitioner, one of the most difficult is transitioning a solo practice into a group practice. The benefits are many, but so are the stresses and tensions involved. There are specific things the senior dentist can do to help pave the way, and reduce the time frame and pain of the struggle.

In this article, which continues from the May/June issue of Dental Equipment & Materials, I will present the advantages for the established dentist of taking a partner into your practice, the economic benefits of a larger practice, how to begin the process, supervise and introduce your associate to your patients and staff, and how it will feel to become the senior partner. My husband and I ran a successful general dental practice, developed it to accommodate additional dentists, and then sold off half to one associate, and eventually the remainder to our second associate, retired from the practice to play instead of work. The road map we used for this journey and what we learned from the experience is described below.

Introducing the associate

Take every opportunity to introduce the associate to your patients of record. Be prepared to tell everyone what a wonderful, talented dentist you have found to join you in practice. Let the new dentist perform dentistry on you, your family, and staff members, and use that as a selling point when introductions are made. You need to put the associate's name on your sign and on your stationery. The telephone should be answered with both doctors' names. Staff should be instructed to encourage patients to feel comfortable being treated by the new dentist. You may even need to change the name of your practice if it only reflects your name. Refer to the new doctor as your "partner," and instruct staff to do the same. New patients need to be seen by both dentists. Assign some larger cases to the associate. Be passionate about the new doctor's success in your office.

We found that the staff needs to see the doctors in alignment. Do not permit staff members to complain to one doctor about the other. Bring all complaints to the attention of the other doctor, and let the staff members know that you will both do that. There must be 100 percent honesty between the doctors about every facet of the relationship.

Start dividing the management responsibilities of the office. Try rotating these every few months so that the associate experiences all areas. This should include sharing after-hours emergency coverage.

The new doctor should be called Dr. _____ by the staff. You need to be aware that your staff may be apprehensive about the presence of a new dentist in the practice. The associate (as well as the senior doctor) should not socialize with staff members or their spouses on an individual basis. He or she needs to develop into a caring employer by being sensitive to staff members' concerns and personal problems. He or she should give input into annual staff reviews.

The struggle

As you prepare to sell a portion of your practice to another dentist, many emotional issues will come up. This is the practice that you nurtured from its inception for possibly 10 or even 20 years of your life. You probably changed every light bulb, arranged every purchase, and hired every employee. Giving up control on even small issues of running the practice may be very difficult. There may even be a special parking space just for the owner of the practice, which you may need to relinquish.

Just as letting go of your children as they grow up is vital to their development, so is letting go of the control of your dental practice. It is an emotionally difficult, but necessary transition. Sharing the administration of the practice, the supervision of the staff, and treatment of patients with another practitioner will allow your practice to grow to previously unimaginable levels. The addition of the new doctor — with a different personality and perhaps the expansion of hours and days treatment is available — will attract a whole new group of patients.

There will be times when you see your associate fabricating a bridge for your favorite patient, or when a long-time staff member shares a special family problem with him or her, that you may feel less important and dejected. Because they will not see you as often, patients may even ask you if you are planning to retire. The associate's production may even become much larger than yours — which is a very good thing — but it can be very difficult emotionally.

If the dentists work a split schedule — where one dentist comes to work when the other dentist leaves — both must be sensitive to the use of the treatment rooms and the assistants so as not to upset the other dentist.

The two dentists should work out an agreement about their respective percentages of operative treatment. The person scheduling appointments must see that the booking results in these percentages. Whenever possible, both new and regular patients should be scheduled with the doctor whose production is lower than the desired portion of the practice. This system works well and keeps the dentists from becoming competitive.

Paving the way for the future, we found that it is a good idea for patients not to be assigned a particular dentist. This allows scheduling flexibility. Staff members should book appointments according to what is the best time and day for the patient, and inform the patient which doctor will be seeing him or her. If the patient has a preference, the request should be honored. However, for consistent care, the dentist who starts major procedures must have the remaining visits scheduled with him or her.

Be open to new techniques of practicing dentistry from your associate who attended dental school more recently. Both doctors should take continuing-education courses frequently to keep the practice up-to-date.

If your spouse is working in the practice, there are special issues to address. If the associate is going to become a partner and pay a great deal of money to buy into this practice, he or she needs to be treated with the utmost respect and honesty. It must be understood that the spouse's position must be that of an employee, and, as the associate doctor becomes a partner, his or her needs are important. He or she should be shown all the statistics of the practice, all the checks that are written, and how his or her compensation is calculated. The salary of the spouse must be equivalent to any other employee who would be hired for that position.

There is definitely a period of adjustment, not unlike being married. Be proactive to keep the lines of communication wide open between the partners. The process is not an easy one, but realize that this is a means to improving your lifestyle. Sharing and growing your practice with another dentist can bring financial rewards and freedom that can exceed your wildest dreams!

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Flossie Riesner is a dental management consultant, international speaker, and president of Riesner Consulting, founded in 1999. She previously ran a successful dental practice with her husband for more than 20 years in Lansdale, Pa., and holds a bachelor's and master's degree in mathematics. Her clients include practices in 15 states. She can be reached at (215) 368-1522 or by e-mail at [email protected].