Advice About Being a Dental Associate

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.

Avoid Problems with Dental Associates

The key to avoiding the most common mistakes related to bringing on dental associates is to properly plan for the transition and take measures to manage expectations. You might be looking forward to how it will impact you and your practice–handling fewer patients, offloading some administrative work, possibly enjoying the proceeds of a final sale eventually—but this is a major change that will not only impact you.  

Your new associate has their own expectations—about income, the practical day-to-day reality of dental work, and making the practice their own.  And don’t forget your staff—this decision will impact every aspect of your practice. That’s why there are few details too small to overlook.

Here are some of the most common pitfalls, and how you can avoid them.

  • The practice isn’t prepared for the associate.  Bringing in an associate requires planning, from setting up a workspace to preparing staff for the new addition.  If the logistics are not managed properly in advance, it’ll make it much harder on everyone (even your patients), and may cause regrets. Take the time to think through what it will take to organize your practice for the new associate and make sure the details are taken care of before they start.  Include your office staff in these plans and encourage their input.
  • The office staff views the new associate as a problem. Your office staff has been carefully selected and trained to work together.  Bringing in a new associate is a big change. Now your staff with have twice as many dentists to support, one of whom they’ve never worked with before.  This is a significant change to your office dynamic and culture. Talk through your plans with your office staff, encourage their feedback, listen closely to their concerns, and take these into consideration as you make your decisions.
  • The established dentist and staff assume the new associate will fit right in. No two dentists practice in the same way.  Your new associate will have their own personality and approach to dentistry. While your practice may be running smoothly, it will have to adjust to accommodate a new associate. And although change can be daunting, it is also an opportunity to get a fresh perspective and potentially improve your office culture, procedures, and overall practice as you can draw on the strengths of the associate.
  • The practice lacks a clear direction. If you don’t know where you are going, it’s more difficult to bring another along with you, and you may struggle to choose a clear path to follow. Think back to when you started your practice.  What was your vision? Have you achieved it? Consider how dental associates may help get you closer to that vision. Use those considerations to guide your decisions about who to bring on, as well as when and how to bring them on.
  • The associate feels they are not adequately compensated for their contribution. Nothing will make an associateship sour faster than someone feeling they are being taken advantage of.  Consider what the practice can bear to pay a new associate. Consult with your accountant about establishing a fair pay scale that won’t harm your practice while providing a motivating incentive to have a positive impact.  Have frank and open discussions with the new associate about the realities of the practice. And of course, the compensation package you agree on should be in writing and signed by both parties.
  • The associate has unrealistic financial expectations. When meeting with potential associates, ask about their expectations in the first year, second year, and so forth, to get a sense of whether they are prepared for the realities of practicing generally, as well as assessing their fit into your practice specifically. Consider these expectations along with the skills they bring to your practice; they could significantly impact the success of the overall business for years to come.
  • The owner dentist doesn’t deliver on a verbal agreement with the associate. If an owner dentist fails to adequately plan for the associate—either because they don’t have a good sense of what the practice can afford to pay, haven’t consulted with an accountant, or haven’t created a written agreement—the owner may not be able to follow through on the offer. The failure to deliver will create bad feelings on all sides and may cause the associate to leave the practice.
  • The associate wasn’t aware the managed care patients would be their responsibility. The role the associate will take on in the practice must be clearly discussed and understood before any agreements can be reached. Especially if the associate is inexperienced, they may not know the realities of beginning a dental career. If handling less lucrative or more mundane cases will be part of their responsibility, make sure this is understood up front.
  • The owner dentist changes their mind about the selling price. We’ve all heard about buyer’s remorse, but sellers can regret the deal also.  Too often, a price has been verbally agreed to when second thoughts creep in and threaten to spoil the deal. This can be avoid by a careful accounting of the value of the practice, such as through a third-party accounting firm.  DDSmatch Southwest has partnered with the dental accountants at Blue & Co. to perform this valuable service for our clients..  Be clear about the value of your practice and what is a fair market price before you talk about the sale price with any potential buyers.
  • Parties cannot come to an agreement on price and terms of buy‐in or sale.  Following on the last point, having an independent valuation of your practice will help both parties come to terms on what the practice is worth and what are fair terms for a buy-in or sale. The seller has a lot invested in the practice—it’s the culmination of a lifetime of work. And of course the buyer has an incentive to keep the buy-in terms or sale price low.  An objective evaluation of the worth of the practice can help bring the parties together.

DDSmatch Southwest Can Help You Avoid Potential Problems with Dental Associates

The recurring theme through all of these issues is the need to be thorough in your preparation for a new associate: know the value of your practice; think through your expectations and discuss them openly with your new associate, making sure you each agree on the terms in writing, and thoroughly prepare your office staff and office space.  When you understand some of these pitfalls on the front‐end, it can help your practice to avoid an unsuccessful associateship and regrets down the road.

In the end, it takes a team to make a successful associateship and transition. At DDSmatch Southwest, we partner with the dental accounting experts at Blue & Co. to provide you The Associate Intelligence Quotient (AIQ).™ This detailed report is based on the individual circumstances of your current practice and can give you a clear, unbiased look at whether dental associates are right for your practice.  Contact us today to get the expert answers you’ve been looking for.