Reflecting on A Crazy Year

Reflecting on A Crazy Year

Like many of us, I learned a lot in our year of Covid-19. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was not to take everything that went wrong as a personal failure.

From the shortage of nurses to teachers to supermarket cashiers, many businesses struggled mightily with staffing issues. It was no different at my nine dental practices and, quite frankly, it really caught me off-guard.

I thought I was a great boss with a happy and thriving staff when we all closed down for quarantine. When it was finally time to reopen nearly three months later, a lot of my staff didn’t want to come back. Some were afraid of catching the virus, some had been lured to other practices with higher pay, and others were making more money from unemployment benefits than actually working. 

Then it became a Catch-22 situation. I couldn’t find enough hygienists and assistants, a situation that was frustrating enough to cause one dentist to quit. A few others left when their spouses were forced to relocate for new jobs. My staff of 60 was down about 40 percent, but the phone was ringing off the hook with patients making appointments. Everyone was ready to come back to the dentist, it seemed, but no one wanted to come back to work. 

I realized I had to get creative to hold onto the staff members I particularly prized. Rather than view their position as simply a job, I wanted them to think of it as a career, so started a 401(k) for all positions. (I can’t afford it yet, but am looking forward to the day when I can match employee contributions.) I also raised the minimum hourly rate I pay, and guaranteed some employees that I would pay for a set number of hours each week, even if it turned out we wouldn’t work them. 

I also learned that I can only delegate so much – it was essential for me to be on site to show my hard-working staff that we were all in it together. That’s not easy with nine practices! To improve morale, I occasionally sent flowers or bought lunch for the team. I learned just how much people need to feel appreciated and to be told thank you. And it came from the heart.

I also had to extend that appreciation to myself. I was so hard on myself, thinking it was all my fault when everything seemed to be going wrong. In one particularly brutal week, a dentist, a hygienist and two assistants all gave their notice. I took that really personally. Why were they all leaving me? What was I doing wrong? It didn’t help that I was in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy and working six days a week.

Happily, that guilt tripping didn’t last too long and I finally came to see that I was simply trying my best to cope with unprecedented challenges. Change is inevitable and employees move on. There’s only so much anyone (including myself) can do to mitigate the circumstances.

Flash forward several months and happily, I’m back to being fully staffed and, most importantly, gave birth of Anna, my first child, on October 6.

So what did I learn through this crazy period? First, that it’s important to regularly show my staff how much I appreciate and count on them. Little things like a vase of flowers or small gift can go so far. Second, I learned that not every staff member was a perfect fit, and that there was nothing personal about it. 

And finally, I came to realize that each of us can only do our best. For someone who tends to overachieve, that’s a humbling lesson I have really taken to heart. It’s made me a better dentist, and a more appreciative and emphatic employer too. 

Challenges in Owning Your Own Dental Practice

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If you know me at all, you know that I am a huge advocate of dental entrepreneurship. I believe the autonomy of being your own boss creates a life of freedom, flexibility and the opportunity for unlimited financial success.

The reality is, there will be significant challenges along the way.  The biggest learning curves for me happened in the areas of systems organization, human resources, and vendor relationships. Ironically, patient care was the least of my troubles!

Dental school did an excellent job preparing me to care for my patients, but the majority of my business knowledge came in the form of on the job training.

1. Organization

When I transitioned from associate dentist to owning and operating my practice I jumped right into patient care. I was confident that I was serving my patients well, but I didn’t have systems in place for the daily operations of my business. As a result, I didn’t receive timely compensation. I was contacting each patient’s insurance company for the first time on the day of service. The patients were not being asked to pay upfront.

I have since learned that a bit of research into the leading insurance companies can streamline this whole process. Forms and documents are available online to register as a provider with the insurance companies, as well as the necessary forms for the patients.

Create a checklist for your staff, to confirm the insurance company has everything they need to process your request. You can receive electronic payments from most companies. This can reduce the wait time of compensation from weeks to days.

Before your doors open, spend some time researching how you will organize your systems. There are many software options available to ease daily operations and workflow, and it’s much better to have these systems in place before you ever see your first patient.

 2. Human Resources

As a new practice owner, I suddenly found myself hiring and managing employees.  From the person who greets the patients at your front desk, to dental assistants, hygienists, and associate dentists, each team member will affect the success of your practice. I was not prepared for the reality of hiring, firing, and the difficult conversations I needed to have regularly.  Dental school did not teach me how to confront employees who were not behaving professionally or how to negotiate salaries.

One piece of advice I can pass along is to have a clear job description for each staff role, as well as a salary cap. Know exactly who you are looking for to fill each position and an explicit parameter for each salary.

3. Vendor Relationships

To run a successful dental practice you will need to build relationships with a wide range of vendors. From website development to dental supplies and everything in between, knowing who to hire and how to negotiate can save you dollars and headaches. I learned the hard way that you can’t always trust people. I poured a lot of money into a website design only to find out that the marketing person plagiarized the content from another dentist’s site in Texas. You don’t know what you don’t know! Or as Maya Angelou said “When you know better, you do better.” Having a mentor who is experienced in running a dental practice is invaluable. A mentor can introduce you to vetted vendors and you can avoid making costly mistakes.

You can avoid the tough, new business owner lessons . I can help. Let’s connect.