Feeling Stuck? Take Control of Your Dental Destiny

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As an ADA Advisor helping dentists navigate their practice transitions, I talk to many dentists who say they feel “stuck.” When someone says this, I always try to better understand what they mean. Their answers tend to fall into one of a few categories:

  • They have been in their current practice for a few years and feel like there’s no room for advancement. The owner isn’t retiring any time soon and doesn’t want to share patients or responsibility.
  • They are in a corporate practice and like the stability, but feel burned out.
  • They want to buy but aren’t sure how they can afford it, or don’t feel quite ready. (And they know there’s a lot they don’t know.)

Over the last few months, I have talked to many who witnessed layoffs (or experienced them firsthand) and now worry about their own stability.

Sound familiar? If so, don’t despair! Let’s look at how you can take back control of your dental destiny.

Make the right kind of change

Moving to a new practice (whether as a buyer or an associate) can help you get “unstuck” – but you have to go into it thoughtfully. If you take the time to think it through, you will regain control – and even reignite your love of dentistry.

Too often, I see dentists get so burned out that they settle for the first practice that will take them. Two or three years later, they’re in the same boat as before: stuck.

The truth is, you have many options. Here are a few types of change that can empower you to take control.

Expand your scope of practice

Dentists looking to make a change often tell me that they are tired of being told which “approved” treatments are acceptable. This is often dictated by insurers. And while it may solve the patient’s problem, it may not be the best long-term solution for their smile. This can be frustrating, especially when you believe there’s a better way.

You don’t have to limit your toolkit to what insurers approve. If you are considering a change, look for a place where you can practice with your ideal tools and methods. To find this place, make sure to spend some time talking to potential employers about how they approach different types of cases. Ask how they would handle endo retreatment cases, perio surgeries, or other difficult oral surgery cases. Ideally, this will spark a good conversation about your respective practice styles. While you don’t need to do everything the same way, you should at least respect each other’s experience and professional opinions while aiming to subscribe to a similar philosophy of care.

If possible, see if you can shadow at a potential practice or at least review a few sample cases together. Spending a couple hours like this can help you feel confident that you’ll be able to practice in a manner that gives your patients the best possible outcomes.

Better yet, if you purchase a practice, you can make all the decisions. But again, look to buy from an owner who practices in a manner similar to your ideal.

Seek out schedule flexibility

A few years out of dental school, many dentists are trying to balance an accelerating career with the responsibilities of a growing family. And while you need to work those hours to pay back student loans and family-related debt, a bit of schedule flexibility can make a big difference.

A smaller private practice usually offers more schedule flexibility than a corporate practice. By building a good working relationship with your employer and team, you can often gain more freedom to set your schedule.

However, be careful with very small practices – while you may have flexibility, you may also be responsible for more call, especially if you are a solo practitioner.

Buy a practice where you can set the tone

Of course, the best way to control your destiny is to buy your very own practice. As an owner, you set the tone for every detail!

You can create the atmosphere and pace you prefer, whether that’s a bustling office that maximizes efficiency or one that’s more laid back, where you work with one patient at a time. You can build your ideal team, hand-picking who you work with. You can determine the insurances you accept, the materials you use, and the treatments you refer out.

Many dentists also find that ownership allows them the opportunity to build a practice that is impactful in the community. This model can take many forms, whether it’s access-to-care volunteer work, sponsoring a local sports team, or working with school or Scouts groups to instill good dental habits for the next generation. Others make a recurring commitment to a cause, such as hosting food drives, working with a preferred charity, or one of my favorites – a candy buy-back program after Halloween.

Build relationships with your patients

While some dentists prefer to maximize efficiency and volume, others find great satisfaction in connecting with their patients as people. If you feel like you truly know who you’re working with, you can see the results first-hand over time. Depending on your community, you may even run into your patients as you go about your day, at the grocery store or your kids’ school.

These relationships work both ways. Patients (and their parents) appreciate follow up after an appointment or a check-in after a difficult procedure.

This type of relationship-building is more possible in a smaller practice with a more measured pace. That smaller practice also lends itself better to “squeezing in” patients for emergencies – which can be satisfying for both you (because you got to help someone in need) and the patient (who was treated more quickly).

Are you ready to move on? 

Once you’ve identified which type of changes you want to make, the real question becomes whether you need to move on to find satisfaction.

Start with a bit of soul searching. Make three lists:

  • What you like about your current practice
  • What you don’t like
  • What you wish you had

Compare the three and look for gaps or overlaps. If you might be able to change some of the dislikes or achieve some of the wishes in your current practice, start there. Talk to your current manager or practice owner and see what’s possible. If you have proven yourself, they may be willing to make changes to keep you – it never hurts to ask!

However, if your desired changes just aren’t possible within your existing practice – such as a mis-matched pace or tone – it may be time to find a new practice.

In that case, make a list of what you want in that new practice. Have in-depth conversations with those closest to you – family and friends – to get their input. Be sure to consider your partner’s needs, too, as changing where and when you work will also affect how your household runs, particularly if you are open to relocating for the perfect practice.

Talk to respected peers about what they like and don’t like about their own jobs to better refine your vision of what’s possible. Don’t forget to keep your expectations realistic when weighing your options.

Historically, noncompete clauses have been included in many associate contracts with the intent to protect the employer’s business by disallowing the associate from providing dental services in a surrounding area for a specified length of time. On April 23, 2024, the Federal Trade Commission issued a final rule banning noncompete clauses nationwide. Once it goes into effect, the final rule applies to noncompetes entered into after the effective date and some noncompetes currently in existence. Every dentist should consult a lawyer about any existing or new noncompete clause as it may still be enforceable. Read more about the ruling on ADA News.

Next, if you are considering buying a practice, do some background research. Ask colleagues or your state/local society for referrals so you can talk to:

  • An accountant or financial advisor about your current financial situation
  • Two or three lenders about their terms and what might be possible, given your financial situation
  • A local attorney who knows dental practice transitions

Once you’ve done your legwork, you can make a much better informed decision about your future. And at that point, you can create your free ADA Practice Transitions profile and start finding the right practice for you!

Remember, you don’t have to feel stuck in your current role. As a dentist, you have a highly valued skillset – you owe it to yourself to practice those skills in a gratifying way. And if you take control of your destiny with the same thoughtful, step-by-step approach you use in your work, you’ll get the same results: satisfaction and a smile.