Part Science, Part Art: Finding & Shaping the Perfect Associate for Your Practice

An illustration of a man finding the right buyer for his dental practice

Whether you can’t keep up with demand or you’re beginning to slow down and transition to retirement, the right associate can help you grow your practice and ensure patients are well cared for now and into the future.

However, bringing in an associate can be intimidating. You’ve built your practice’s reputation on a certain style of care. You may have known some of your patients (and their families) for decades. You want to know that Mrs. Smith is going to get the same quality and level of care she’s come to expect, regardless of which dentist she sees in your office.

So what makes an associate “right” for your practice and patients? How do you decide the appropriate level of training needed to be successful in your practice?

Every week in my role at ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT), I speak with owners looking to hire an associate or sell their practice. Many of these owners insist that any associate coming to work for them have a minimum of two to five years of experience. Too often, this means that they refuse to even consider a candidate who would otherwise be a perfect fit.

At ADAPT, we focus on matching dentists who share a common philosophy of care. That means we strive to connect doctors who can work well together and respect each others’ professional decision-making. While experience is important, skills can ultimately be trained. Underlying personality traits cannot.

For example, some doctors prefer to spend a lot of hands-on time with each patient, while others delegate more of the work to auxiliaries. Neither of these styles is right or wrong, but if your patients have come to expect the former, you shouldn’t hire an associate who prefers to lean on auxiliaries. No one will be happy: not the patients, the doctor, or the rest of your staff.

Sometimes it’s best to hire someone who has the right attitude, approach, and personality for your practice — and let them gain experience under your tutelage. Let’s explore why a doctor with a little less experience can be a great asset to your practice.

Train them to your best practices

Recently graduated doctors often come to you with a clean slate. They haven’t learned any bad habits and are typically laser-focused on achieving perfection.

Meanwhile, you have spent decades honing your skills and developing your own best practices. You know exactly what to do when conditions dictate that a crown margin must be placed in a somewhat “less than ideal” location, a canal is blocked out, or a tooth is broken off at the gingival level. This is precisely what most young professionals crave: hands-on, in-the-trenches mentorship, where they can learn from an experienced doctor.

Through your mentorship, you can mold a new graduate to your best practices. Yes, they may initially take longer to perform their duties, but a bit of patience now will pay off in the long run.

Get up to date on the latest evidence and technology 

Even the most diligent doctor has limited time each year for CE courses. That makes it nearly impossible to stay updated on all the latest research, technology, and best practices — no matter how hard you try.

Enter a doctor who recently graduated from dental school. They have spent the last four years steeped in the very latest research and best practices, often learning with the newest equipment.

With their background, the right recent graduate can help you stay current on providing evidence-based care and understanding the new technologies that they have practiced with.

Doesn’t that sound like a great resource for your practice?

Support independent dentistry

83% of graduating dental students say they want to own their own practice within ten years. Yet many turn to a DSO for their first job after dental school. Many owners I speak with bemoan this fact, stating that the training early-career professionals receive in DSOs is not ideal for developing the clinical skill set owners value. Even so, many of these same owners refuse to hire anyone with less than five years of experience.

This begs the question: Where do owners expect new graduates to gain that initial experience?

The reality is, DSOs are generally eager to hire new graduates and train them to their systems and practices. And DSOs can be a fantastic place for young dentists to build their skills while earning a steady paycheck. Owners need to either embrace this model or take matters into their own hands and train a new graduate to their specifications.

These young dentists have to get that hands-on experience somewhere — why not in your practice?

Gain a new perspective — and revenue 

Chances are, your practice could benefit from a fresh set of eyes to identify improvements that will attract new patients or bring in new revenue streams. A new dentist can provide an outsider’s perspective and renewed energy that will enable you to grow your practice.

Think about what you currently refer out. If you can bring someone in who has training and interest in a treatment you don’t currently offer, you can quickly add to the practice’s bottom line. Alternatively, the incoming dentist could take over some of the “bread and butter” dentistry, freeing up your time for more complicated treatments.

Be sure to discuss your intentions with any prospective hire to ensure you’re on the same page.

Become a mentor

Think back to the early days of your own career. Were you fortunate enough to have a good mentor, someone who took you under their wing and helped you increase your confidence and speed? Or do you wish you’d had someone like that?

Now it’s your turn to give back to the profession by mentoring a young dentist. Especially after the past two pandemic years, many incoming dentists are hungry for that extra hands-on learning. They want someone who can help them gain their professional footing.

Watching someone grow into their career — and themselves — can be rewarding on many levels. 

Plan ahead for your own retirement

Many dentists plan a long, gradual path to retirement. They start by taking Fridays off, then maybe Wednesday mornings, until they’re fully retired five years later. This comes with tradeoffs, though. Reducing your hours cuts into the practice’s profitability, which can significantly lower your eventual sale price.

And what if “life happens” — an injury, a family member’s health needs, etc — and you have to sell quickly? I talk to many time-crunched sellers who end up closing their practices entirely, which can exacerbate access-to-care issues if the practice is already in an underserved area.

Bringing in a young associate helps protect you, your practice, your patients, and your staff against this uncertainty. I often work with dentists who set up an “associate-to-owner” pathway, in which both sides agree on a set timeline during which the senior dentist sells the practice to the junior dentist. In many cases, the senior dentist stays on as a part-time associate after the sale, working a day or two a week or advising on more complex cases.

If unexpected challenges arise, you’ll already have a dentist in the practice who knows how it ticks and can provide continuity of care to your patients.

See What Went Wrong: My Path to Retirement Got Way Too Bumpy.

How to bring in a new graduate

If you’ve decided that a new graduate might be right for your practice, it’s time to find the right person. During your interview process, discuss how the practice works and what you expect of your associate — and ensure they’re on the same page. Share a typical schedule and discuss how long you can allocate for various procedures, knowing that they will need more time at first. Build a bit of extra time in the schedule for you to check their work, if necessary. Then work together to set reasonable expectations, including milestones for how you expect their speed to increase over time. Check in frequently to ensure they feel comfortable with what they’re learning and to identify areas where they need more support.

I highly recommend having at least one short daily meeting with your new hire. These should be one-on-one, just you and the associate first thing in the morning. Run through that day’s cases to make sure they’re prepared. While you are at it, review the prior day to see how things went. Planning is half the battle, so troubleshooting issues BEFORE they arise can set up your associate and practice for success.

At the same time, make sure that you convey your confidence in your new hire to your staff. You may need to remind staff to ask the associate their questions, rather than deferring to you.

See What Went Wrong: The Practice Wasn't Ready for an Associate.

Think of hiring as a long-term endeavor. Seek the right person to work with your staff and care for your patients for years to come — rather than seeking someone with a preconceived amount of experience.