Three Ways to Determine If You're Choosing the Right Practice For You

An illustration of a dental chair and dental equipment

Maybe you’ve found a practice that looks great on paper: the location, the salary, the number of operatories.

How do you know it’s the practice where you can become the dentist you’ve always dreamed of being?

I hear of too many cases where dentists jump at the first associateship they’re offered, simply because the salary sounded right — then six, nine, or twelve months later they realize it’s just not a great fit. Maybe they’re working too many hours, or they’re doing nothing but prophys when they thought they would be learning implants.

So how can you avoid this fate?

When you’re evaluating a practice, slow down and take the time to determine if it’s the right one for you. After all, you worked hard to get through undergrad and dental school. It’s worth a little extra effort now to make sure you’re choosing the right practice for your next step.

I recently spoke with Rolando Mia of Empowered Dentistry about exactly this topic. Listen to our episode of the Dental Voice podcast or read on for some of the advice I shared.

Why philosophy of care matters

It all comes down to a key question: do you share a philosophy of care with this practice?

Philosophy of care includes how you interact with:

  • Your staff
  • Your patients
  • The community
  • Referring doctors and specialists

Without compatibility, there’s no continuity of care, which can lead to unhappy staff and patients.

Most dentists will say something like, “I’m all about effective, quality care,” or “I’m 100% dedicated to clinical excellence.” However, their methods can vary significantly. Some prefer to do everything themselves, while others delegate heavily to their auxiliaries. Some always use the newest methods and materials, while others prefer the tried-and-true. None of these is right or wrong, but if you have strong preferences one way, you won’t be satisfied if you land in a practice with the opposite approach.

1. Visit the practice (at least) three times, while patients are there

If you only visit the practice once, after closing on a Saturday afternoon, you won’t get the full feel of the environment or how it runs. That’s why it’s so important to go during a workday when patients are in the office. Your goal is to understand how a typical patient experience unfolds, then decide if it fits your preferences.

While you’re there, pay attention to how patients and staff interact with each other. Do patients spend a long time in the waiting room, or are they taken back to an operatory quickly? Are they chatting with the staff, or is it all business?

Spending the time to thoroughly evaluate a practice is a fabulous investment in your future.

And go more than once! After all, everyone’s on their very best behavior during your first visit. During a second visit, your presence is still a bit special. But by the third visit, you’ll get to see how the practice really runs. And then you can ask yourself:

  • How will I fit in here?
  • Will I be comfortable with the staff-doctor interactions?
  • Can I keep up with the expected pace?
  • How does the patient experience measure up against my expectations?
  • What is the level of care being delivered? Is it up to my standards?

2. Review a typical week’s schedule 

You can learn a lot by looking at the schedule. As you interview, look at a typical week or two to see which treatments are offered and how long is allocated for each. Are you confident that you can maintain the expected pace and procedure mix?

Some dentists want to do a procedure from start to finish, while others want to run three or four different chairs while also checking on two hygiene appointments. Which style makes you comfortable — and sets you up for success?

Similarly, if you want to learn a particular skill, will you be able to observe (and eventually participate in) the relevant cases? For example, if you want to learn implant dentistry, make sure that the senior doctor will allow you to carve out schedule time to observe and learn.

And since life is about more than just dentistry, make sure the practice’s hours align with the rest of your life. Be sure to talk about your schedule and expectations:

  • Will you be expected to work evenings or weekends? 
  • When will you be on call? How often does the practice see emergencies?
  • How does the practice cover vacations or illness?

If you really want to leave at 3 PM on Tuesdays so you can continue to lead your child’s Scout troop, now is the time to ask.

Likewise, if it’s important that you’re active in organized dentistry or devote time to serving the homeless population, discuss it now to ensure that the practice will accommodate your desires. (These types of activities can make you an even more desirable candidate!)

3. Pay attention to how the doctor interacts with staff and patients

Dentistry is all about building relationships. But while some doctors want to nurture personal relationships with every patient, others prefer to focus on the clinical and let the staff really build the relationships.

Some practices rely on auxiliaries practicing to the top of their licensing. In others, the doctor “owns” the patient relationships. When patients come to expect a certain dynamic, they can get upset when someone rocks the boat — possibly even leaving the practice. For example, a patient accustomed to a doctor spending a few minutes chatting with them during a visit may feel slighted if the new doctor suddenly delegates everything to an auxiliary.

During your three visits, observe these relationships and dynamics and ask yourself whether they mirror your own style.

When the magic happens

Many doctors are so caught up in finding a practice, any practice, that they overlook some of these philosophy of care points. But consider it part of your due diligence: spending the time to thoroughly evaluate a practice is a fabulous investment in your future.

On the Dental Voice podcast, I shared the story of Drs. Kristen Sciolino and Joe Thibodeau. These two doctors shared such complementary personalities and philosophies of care that their match has been a fantastic success. Less than 18 months after graduating from dental school, Dr. Sciolino bought the million-dollar practice. Today, she is thriving — and so is the practice.

On the other hand, I also shared a story of an aunt and her niece who had long planned to work together — but never bothered to discuss whether they had a similar definition of success. As a result, the two encountered a clash of expectations and styles. The result? A failed work relationship and awkward family holidays.

Take the time 

When you’re evaluating a practice opportunity, take the time to evaluate every aspect of it while asking yourself: “Will this practice help me become the dentist I’ve always dreamed of?”

And if it won’t, there’s no shame in gracefully declining an offer and continuing to search for a better fit.