Starting an Associateship? Own the Operatory from Day One!

An illustration of a dentist and patient

Ready to start a new associateship — maybe even your first associateship after dental school?

It’s nerve-wracking starting any new job, let alone the first one as a new doctor.

However, your patients and staff need to know you’re in control, right from the beginning. You must project confidence to gain their trust and ensure treatment acceptance.

And even if you’re shaking in your shoes, remember: you worked hard to get here and you are ready.

Your dental school granted you a degree based on your work.

Your state has licensed you.

The practice owner hired you because they believe in you and your abilities.

Now it’s time to demonstrate all that to your patients.

Here are five ways to get off on the right foot and take ownership of the operatory.

Start before your first day

Begin preparing for success before you even sign on the dotted line. Ask your new boss the right questions to ensure you share the same expectations about your responsibilities. Make sure you understand your pay, benefits, etc so that you can focus on the dentistry.

Then, in that period between signing a contract and your first day, work with your new boss to fill out and work through an integration plan. This exercise will set you and the practice up for success from the very first day. Your integration plan should include things like credentialing, licensure, and getting to know the staff — but also understanding the practice’s flow, processes, and technology. Download our free ebook for full details and a sample plan.

Download Integration Plan

Pay special attention to notifying patients. The senior doctor should draft a letter (and post it to the practice’s website and/or social channels) that explains why you’re such a great fit for the practice. Whenever possible, the senior doctor should introduce you to your new patients with a warm hand-off that emphasizes their confidence in you and your abilities.

Prepare before every patient

When you’re new to a practice, every patient is new to you. That makes preparation essential.

Set time aside every day to review charts for the next day’s patients. Find a quiet place where you can concentrate. Make sure you know what each patient expects: are they coming in for a routine cleaning, or are they in the midst of a more complex treatment plan? If anything is unclear, consult with the senior doctor or your auxiliaries. Refer to your textbooks or other resources if you need to brush up on best practices or materials.

During the morning huddle, review your schedule with the team. Ask staff for their insights about the day’s patients. If Mrs. Jones is scheduled to come in with a toothache, it’s helpful to know that this is her fourth such visit this year — or that it has been four years since her last visit. Discuss staff roles for the day.

Using this prep time wisely will ensure you’re not walking into an operatory “cold.” It will help you avoid feeling like you need to look things up while in the operatory. Don’t do this! If you absolutely must confirm a next step while a patient is in the chair, excuse yourself and do so back in your prep area. Don’t risk the patient’s trust and confidence.

At the end of each procedure, add detailed notes to the chart to recap what happened. Your future self will thank you when the patient returns.

Work with your auxiliaries

If you’re a new dentist, your auxiliaries may have much more hands-on experience than you. They may have been seeing “your” patients for years!

A good auxiliary can make your day go much smoother. For example, you can send them into the operatory first to do an initial check, then report back to you in your office or the hallway so that you are better prepared when you enter the operatory.

However, the auxiliary needs to know that you’re in charge of the operatory — while feeling that their experience and abilities are respected.

Take steps to build good relationships with each auxiliary. Ideally, this starts before your first day as part of your integration plan. Have a one-on-one with each team member. Ask what they enjoy doing and how they prefer to work with you. Are they used to lots of autonomy, or do they prefer for you to run the show? Are they familiar with your preferred materials? Are they comfortable doing the full range of procedures allowed by the state?

The doctors should help set the right tone throughout the practice. During the morning huddle, lead the discussion of your planned patients. If staff keep coming to the senior doctor to ask questions, he should guide them to defer to you on your patients.

See: How to Become a Team Leader When You're New to the Practice

Conduct regular one-on-ones with your senior doctor

It’s okay not to know everything, especially when you’re first starting out. However, you want to be careful about conveying big knowledge gaps to staff or patients. Instead, work with your senior doctor to discuss tricky cases or ask for guidance. These should be one-on-one meetings, just the two of you, away from staff.

At first, these meetings may be daily or twice a week. Over time, you can reduce their frequency to monthly or as-needed. Either way, as you do your daily prep, flag things you want to discuss or clarify. A busy senior doctor will appreciate your conscientiousness if you come to your meetings with specific things to discuss.

Along the way, be sure to demonstrate that you are learning and gaining speed and confidence. If you keep struggling with a particular procedure, look for CE or other avenues to improve your skills. You can learn a lot by shadowing a specialist in your area (and build your professional network at the same time). And don’t be afraid to request additional mentoring from the senior doctor if you need it.

Fake it till you make it

Ultimately, wishy washy doesn’t work well. Always walk into the operatory exuding confidence, even if you don’t quite feel it. Be decisive and respectful. If your auxiliary begins to question you in front of the patient, excuse yourself and have sidebar conversations out of the operatory.

Part of being a good diagnostician is carefully thinking through the situation. Do this confidently while in the operatory. Explain your reasoning and educate the patient to demonstrate to them — and yourself — that you know what you’re talking about.

Finally, remember that it is ok to say, “This is a very difficult situation and I am going to have to get a second opinion.” Patients and staff will respect this approach more than providing an answer that proves to be incorrect. Just be sure to follow through!

Starting any new job requires a leap of faith and a shot of confidence. While it’s normal to be nervous, remember: you have what it takes to be a dental rockstar! The more you can act like one, the more you will believe it.