Dental Associateships: Reduce Your Risk Before Buying a Dental Practice

You didn’t go to dental school with a dream of being an employee. But before you are in a strong position to consider buying a dental practice, you may need to put in time as an associate. A generation ago, starting up your own practice right out of dental school, or soon after, was a more common trend. These days, however, the marketplace has changed. More and more, dental graduates are putting in time working with another dentist, whether as a stepping stone to an independent practice, or with an eye to buying-in down the road.  The mentorship experience is also valuable, to train under an experienced guide.

This first step in your career can be critical, and the more care you take when deciding where and how to start practicing dentistry, the better off you will be long-term. The question is, how do you know which practice is right for you? Without being able to see the future, there will always be some risk. The good news is, that there are good ways to reduce that risk, and increase your chances of security and success over time.

Here are a few items to consider.

Location, Location, Location

First, think carefully about where you want to practice. You’re young, you’ve worked hard, you’re on the brink of a successful career, and you want to enjoy this stage of your life while setting the stage for your next step. Living in a cool city where you can take advantage of what urban life has to offer may appeal to you. Or, maybe you’d like to live near a coast, or near the mountains.

However, these preferences come at a cost, both literal and figurative. Cities and other popular areas are expensive. Also, they are competitive. You’ll have to work harder to get hired as a dental associate, to get a decent and affordable place to live (as you’re not earning as much yet), and to attract patients. While rural areas and smaller towns may not be your first choice, they have a lot to offer.

For more on this, read our post about the benefits of dentistry in rural areas. You can let your classmates slug it out for a small apartment and a practice with lower profit margins in the big city, while you get ready for buying a dental practice sooner than you probably could otherwise. You can save your earnings for trips to the city, or weekends at the coast where you can enjoy what it offers with less stress.

Job Interviews are Two-Way Streets

The process of locating a dental associateship is not just about you wooing established dentists. You are young, energetic, well-educated with up-to-date training, and well versed in new technology. You will be an asset to any practice you join. Getting a dental associateship is not just about getting an offer. It’s about finding the right fit. You are kicking the tires on the hiring dentist and their practice, as much as they are vetting you.

Here are some things you can do to make sure you have the data you need to make an informed choice about where to start your career.

The More You Know, the Better

  • Call the practice. Your experience with the front desk personnel can tell you a lot about how the practice operates. Do they answer the phone quickly? Are they courteous? Do they sound professional and organized? Also, call after hours to hear their outgoing message. Do they provide emergency information? Do they provide a professional impression of the practice and reflect a sound business operation? If a practice can’t manage their phones well, what does that say for the rest of their services?
  • Arrive early. Just like calling the practice, you will be able to see the front office staff in motion: what happens when patients arrive, how they are checked in, how long they wait, the culture of the office, and other things that may be glossed over in a formal interview. The front office operations are essential to a successful and healthy practice, and first hand experience is really the only way to see it for yourself. Are they properly scheduling follow ups for additional work? Are they on top of collecting payments and getting insurance information? And while it may seem awkward to sit in the waiting room, you can easily devise an excuse (being cautious about time, for instance, especially if you’ve come a long way) and the information you gather may be invaluable.
  • Don’t just talk. It’s not hard for either party in a job interview to impress the other. But talk is cheap. If it’s not offered as part of the interview process, ask for a “working interview” where you can work with the hiring dentist, perhaps acting as an assistant. This will give you the chance to impress with your skill, but, more importantly, you’ll get to see something you never would have otherwise until after you’ve began your associateship; you’ll get to see how the doctor and their practice actually function. This will tell you more than anything they can say in an interview. Also, when it goes well, you’ve given the staff something good to relay to patients as they start scheduling appointments for you.

Remember, the more information you have, the better positioned you are to make a good decision, reducing your risk.

Dental Associateships Prepare You for Buying a Dental Practice

Dental associates perform a variety of functions for an owner dentist. But, for you, this is your path to prepare for your likely career goal of owning your own practice. It’s a time when you have lower risks and less at stake, so you can figure out how to work within a practice setting, learn managerial skills, and understand what your role is—and, importantly, what it is not.

When you get your diploma, you are a doctor. You are not staff. A well-run practice, like any business, is one where the manager (here, the doctor) hires able staff members, provides them with proper training, direction, and support, and then gives them the independence to do their jobs. This model empowers staff and communicates to them that they are trusted. These qualities in a business encourage staff to do their best, build loyalty, and generally the staff will reflect trust back to the doctor. Organizations with these qualities are better suited to weather tough situations.  

This is important to remember as a dental associate, because, while you are not the manager, you are a doctor, with a supervisory role over staff. If there is an unfortunate circumstance where you need to align yourself with one side or the other, you are best aligned with the other doctor(s). If there is an issue that you think needs to be addressed, address it in private with the other doctor(s), not in front of staff. This can be difficult—we want to be fair, and we want to be liked. But remember, your job is not to befriend the receptionist, as much to provide the best dental care you can to your patients, and work with the practice members to facilitate that. By always knowing your role and being professional at all times, it will be easier for you to navigate the difficult personnel issues that will inevitably arise sooner or later over the course of your career.

You may be someone who loves to attend to all of the details. You may be someone who is independent and self-sufficient, and takes pride in those qualities. Both are positive qualities, but you will need to learn to let some of that go and stay flexible as a member of a larger team. Think about the times you’ve spent in a well-run doctor’s office. Is the doctor at the front desk? Is the doctor looking at the schedule? Is the doctor asking questions about billing and insurance?

No, because the doctor is doing their job, attending to patients. That’s your focus. Let the staff do their job. After all, that’s why they are there (and getting paid and receiving benefits). If you are looking over their shoulder, they will be self-conscious, feel second-guessed, question your trust in them, and it can create an uncomfortable work environment. If there are problems with staff, they can be addressed in private or in staff meetings, whichever is most appropriate.

Finally, while on the topic of meetings, beware of any practice that does not have staff meetings. Efficient, organized staff meetings are essential to a smoothly-running operation. Regularly scheduled meetings allow for open communication and a forum for questions, clarification, and addressing issues. An organization that only holds a meeting when there is a problem is like trying to build a boat after you’ve already launched the hull. A little extra time at the dock saves a lot of hassle out at sea. These meetings don’t need to be long, but they should be regular and always have a clear agenda to keep all staff members headed in the same direction.

If you pay close attention during your dental associateship, learning both what to do and, just as important, what not to do, you will be much better prepared for buying a dental practice when the time comes.

ddsmatch Southwest Can Help Reduce the Risk

One of the things we do at ddsmatch Southwest is place dental associates. Many dentists are thinking of transitioning their practices, but are not quite ready to go into full retirement. They may want an associate who will buy-in and perhaps, eventually take over and buy them out. They may want an associate who will expand their practice, increasing its value. They may want to stay involved, but reduce their personal workload.

We have a variety of options for new dentists looking to begin their career. Let us help match you with the right practice. Give us a call today.