The Best of Both Worlds: Rural Practice, Urban Lifestyle

A photograph of tooth mascot answering kid's questions on Stuefen Tooth Day at a grammar school.

In this week's profile of rural dentists building amazing careers, Dr. Sara Stuefen shows us how she enjoys the best of both worlds: a rural practice and an urban lifestyle.

As a member of the ADA’s New Dentist Committee, Dr. Stuefen often spoke to dental students who assume they need to practice in an urban area to live the type of life they want. But she’s quick to point out, “When you graduate, you don’t know what practice style is right for you until you try. There are so many great opportunities in small towns, and you can afford to have the latest technology!”

She also dispels a common misconception: “Rural doesn’t have to mean four hours to the nearest Target. Besides, you can order everything online these days.”

After graduating from the University of Iowa, Dr. Stuefen wanted to work in a small town where she could know her patients and make a difference. “I know I flourish in a smaller environment,” she says. “I like feeling connected to my patients and being able to rely on myself.”

However, her engineer husband needed to be in a more urban area to find a job. (This was a decade before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to realize how many jobs can actually be done from home.)

So they compromised: Dr. Stuefen bought a practice in Vinton, Iowa (population 4,900) and the couple moved to Cedar Rapids (with 132,000 people), just 40 minutes away.

It’s turned out to be the perfect fit for all their needs.

Dr. Stuefen found a long-time owner who was looking to sell his practice. She stepped into the practice and made it her own, with all the latest technology. She was soon busy and making a comfortable living, quickly paying off her debt while working just four days a week. The seller had even financed the purchase.

A welcoming community

Throughout the transition, the seller enthusiastically helped introduce her to the community. She joined the Lions Club and the local hospital board, quickly making connections and building relationships. For example, the practice has provided mouthguards to the local high school football team and participates in health and wellness events throughout the year, including the Iowa Mission of Mercy.

“The community was so welcoming,” she says. “I love working here. Having the relationships is so worth it. And I can throw out ideas to improve the community and help them come to life, which is so rewarding.”

She makes an effort to shop locally to support her patients, and the support has been mutual. There are only a couple of general dentistry practices in town, so everything is word of mouth — she’s never had to advertise, which keeps her overhead low.

A satisfying pace and procedure mix

Since buying the practice, Dr. Stuefen has honed her skills to the needs of her local patient population. To save elderly patients from driving to Cedar Rapids, she focused her CE efforts to become more comfortable with extractions. While she still refers endo and root canals, she’s cultivated a good mix of procedures that keeps her busy and engaged.

Dr. Stuefen enjoys the pace, too. She works four days a week, taking a full hour for lunch each day. She uses her lunch hour to take a walk and run errands around Vinton’s downtown, furthering her connection to the community. Her free weekday gives her plenty of time to participate in organized dentistry or do other projects for the practice. Her staff members appreciate the schedule, too, especially those with children.

And she finds she looks forward to her easy 40-minute commute on country roads. “It’s my time to de-stress. There’s no traffic, and I just listen to podcasts,” she says.

There are challenges, of course. It can be tough to have hard conversations with patients she knows personally. And she sometimes wishes her patients had easier access to specialists. But overall, she wishes more young dentists knew about the benefits of small-town practices.

“The people absolutely make it worth it. And local banks are awesome — they want to ensure you’re successful,” she says.

For someone who’s sold on the benefits of a small-town practice but not sure about living there, Dr. Stuefen’s story offers a great example of having it all. (See: the pros and cons of living in Iowa.)

Throughout the country, there are hundreds of underserved areas within an easy drive of a larger urban center.