How One Dentist Built His Ideal Practice – and Life – In a Small Town

A photograph of the Hussongs

42 years ago, Dr. Dean Hussong graduated from dental school and set out to build his own practice from scratch. After visiting 28 different towns, he and his wife, Ann, settled in Tomahawk (population 3,160) in northern Wisconsin. While Ann was initially skeptical of following her high school sweetheart to such a small town, it turned out to be the best possible move for both of them and an ideal place to raise three children.

Today, the Hussongs hope to inspire others to consider small-market dentistry for building a practice AND a life.

How did you end up in a small-market practice?

Dr. Hussong: I wanted to locate where I would be busy and my skills were needed, in an area with an abundance of natural resources for recreation and living opportunities (i.e. unpolluted lakes, rivers, forests). My father was in retail which necessitated moving frequently as a child and I wanted a different lifestyle where we would not be continually uprooted.

What is the biggest advantage of small-market dentistry for you professionally? For your family? For your patients?

Dr. H: You are a big fish in a small pond. Everyone knows you. Patients are part of the practice family with a long-term relationship instead of a number. We see multiple generations of the same family. Patients are very trusting of your recommendations and the skills you've acquired, and readily accept treatment recommendations, especially after developing a good reputation.

You are literally five minutes from work versus fighting traffic in the city. You can provide big-city services at small-town prices without traveling to a larger town. Your family is close knit with intimate educational and social opportunities.

Small-town practices can be gratifying while providing lifestyle balance (and significant profitability).

What would you tell a young dentist who wasn’t considering practicing in a small town?

Dr. H: You may be overlooking a tremendous and gratifying practice, home balance, and lifestyle, as well as sacrificing significant profitability.

What was your initial impression when considering moving to Tomahawk?
Ann Hussong: That I was following Dean to a place 20 miles off the edge of the Earth! I thought there would be less opportunity for healthcare, shopping, etc. and it would be a culture shock.

After ordering local newspapers and contacting the area chambers of commerce for information, we visited 28 towns in Wisconsin - only a few of which had over 10,000 people – staying in local motels, eating at local restaurants, talking with realtors, etc. I rated each town on a scale of 1 to 10 as far as schools, road condition, parks, the number of bars on Main Street (we don't drink J), newspaper headlines, etc. What I discovered was a welcoming attitude and more opportunity for a relaxing lifestyle. Oh - and Tomahawk ranked the highest!

What are the benefits of small-market practice for your family?

Ann: Neighbors helping neighbors! A short distance to all necessities including school, groceries, healthcare. An abundance of outdoor recreation. Smaller class sizes in the schools.

Within a week of moving to Tomahawk, I bought groceries at the local grocery store. Upon checking out I discovered I had left my billfold and money at home. Of course I was very embarrassed and said I would leave the groceries and run home to get it. The cashier insisted I just take the groceries home and bring back money later at my convenience! Such is the genuinely helpful and friendly attitude in a small town!

What would you tell a dentist’s spouse who was unsure about moving to a small town?

Ann: It is a wonderful place to raise a family! Smaller schools allow for influence in selecting teachers and educational opportunities for your children. There is a great balance between working hard and playing hard. A peaceful place to live. Recreation abounds. There are many groups and organizations one can join. Many small towns (especially Tomahawk) are in an ideal location to take advantage of cultural opportunities, box stores, sports arenas, etc. in larger cities and still return home to less hustle and bustle.

The Hussongs urge you to take a second look at small-market practices and see how they might be the right fit for you, too! Check out:

5 Questions to Ask Your Partner Before Relocating