How Dental Practices Are Like Startups

August 10, 2017

by Dr. Scott Drucker, DMD

I’ve spent much of the past three years building Supply Clinic from inception forward. In the same time period, I’ve finished periodontics residency and now practice part-time at a general dental practice in Chicagoland. My experiences give me a unique perspective into both worlds, and there’s so much more crossover than initially meets the eye. Both involve using multiple skillsets to lead a group of people, build a functional company, and make people happy.

Below are 5 lessons I’ve learned from starting a company, that are equally important to learn in order to run an effective dental practice:

  • Building takes a tremendous investment of time and energy.

It takes more time you first think. If you only give your business (or growing practice) the time required for a hobby or side project, it’ll stay just that. When starting Supply Clinic, I was a full-time resident and full-time entrepreneur, and working the necessary 100 hours per week is simply not sustainable long term. 

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Too much coffee not recommended

Dentists interested in growing their practices need to spend the time to do so. That translates to either cutting down time with patients, or working extra hours (and lots of them!). I love practicing dentistry, but it won’t lead to a quickly growing practice on its own. Dr. Howard Farran of DentalTown often gets a chuckle out of dentists that aspire to grow their practice into a small DSO, but never actually take the time to do so.

  • You will learn on the fly.

Dental school certainly didn’t teach me (or any of us) the skills required to run a business. Am I supposed to run payroll? And deal with contract disputes? And who the heck is the HR manager? Do not worry if you’ve got no idea what you’re doing on your first go. Breathe. And then figure it out, quickly. Certainly don’t be shy to seek out the resources needed to help you out. Consider that an entire mini-industry has formed around dental practice management consulting. Every Vowel sums it up nicely here.

  • Building an effective team culture is crucial.

Businesses that require teams, dental offices included, will have a distinct culture. Everyone has a personality, and how they do (or don’t) work together will in large part determine the success of a business. If you do not guide the culture of your business, your early hires certainly will.

The emphasis on team culture may sound ridiculous, but anybody that’s had to deal with staff members at war with each other can attest to the importance of a team-centric approach. Empowering your teammates to make the clinic patient-centric, or to make the office customer-centric, is crucial. When a team works well, you’ll take it for granted, but when it doesn’t, everyone from the patient to the landlord is likely to know.

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  • Mistakes happen- own them, and learn from them.

S**t happens, no doubt. Roll with the punches and don’t sweat the small stuff. We will miss opportunities to get people in the door/chair, and we may lose others because our hygienist is having a rough day. A crown may end up in a patient’s GI tract, or a patient may come back with a sinus infection after a sinus augmentation.

Own the mistake (even if it wasn’t your fault, or even a mistake at all!), sympathize, and make it right. Word of mouth is powerful, and ratings and reviews all the more so. Cover the cost of customer happiness in the short term so you don’t leave anyone resentful. You’ll ultimately be glad you did. Which brings me to…

  • Interpersonal skills may matter most.

Your 4.0 GPA in dental school won’t automatically translate into procedural success, and your clinical prowess won’t necessarily translate to running a successful practice. Your interpersonal abilities will be a huge asset, or liability, when it comes to running a dental practice. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the ability to make a sale, or acquire a patient. Your implant success rate could be near 100%, but unless you can properly convey the benefits of the treatment in advance to the patient, he or she may not bite in the first place.

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But an even bigger part involves putting your best foot forward for your patients and employees. You’ll need to make sure that your teammates have the tools, and mindset, needed to do their jobs properly. It’s awfully hard to build a team culture without interpersonal skills. And from a patient perspective: I certainly never took an exam on how to deliver bad news from a biopsy report, or studied a textbook preparing me for the barrage of emotional questions that precedes the biopsy procedure.

Every day, I learn more and more about how to run a successful business, but these 5 lessons stand out to me as some of the most crucial. What do you think are the most important lessons to learn in order to run a successful dental practice?

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