Back when I graduated from dental school in 2007, I had an unusually high amount of debt for the time. This was due to the fact that I had three children while in school, requiring that I pay for four years of daycare with student loans. I had the shocking total of $190 thousand in loans. I thought for sure this was the most debt anyone ever had, or would have, in the history of the world incur for the privilege of putting DDS after their name. During the 12 years that have passed since graduation, two important factors have changed. States have been increasing their tuition for dental school, while at the same time insurance companies frequently fail to increase reimbursement rates. In fact, some reimbursement rates are actually decreasing. This has created an economic challenge that prior generations of new grad dentists have never before encountered. Possibly even more challenging than my world record debt!
In the face of this bad news, does it feel like maybe our new dentists should just give up, sell out, move to Mars or sell plasma for a living? I’ve seen many a dentist on Facebook exclaim that being a hygienist would earn them a better salary. I believe that identifying trends in dental economics is helpful for the industry, as it allows us to better understand the challenges we are facing. However, I would like to humbly suggest that hanging onto the bad news, playing it over and over in our minds, could also cripple us. Since we know that our thoughts create our reality, what if thinking over and over again that “everything sucks” is actually making it suck?
Whether you realize it or not, your mindset creates your reality. If you choose to focus on the negative thoughts you have about your new career, you’re going to get negativity in return. But there are other ways to look at your profession. Here’s one I would like to suggest: It’s still a good time to be a dentist, possibly the best ever! How many of you have been in the Facebook Group dumpster fire discussions where everything is doom and gloom? “Our employees suck, our insurance companies suck, the patients suck.” You know what else sucks? How I feel after participating in those conversations. I suggest that you, instead of falling down these rabbit holes, you shut your laptop and change your focus for a better outcome. I promise you, keeping the strategies listed below in mind, things will start to look better. When you start to feel better, you’ll find that you’re much more capable of creating a new future for yourself.
Here are some key factors will help you overcome these challenges:
Be a True Entrepreneur
Have you ever thought about what it means to be an entrepreneur? When Phil Knight started a little shoe company that would someday be Nike, it was a side hustle in his parents’ house. He saw that the U.S. was ready for better, more affordable shoes. At that time, German shoe manufacturers like Adidas dominated the market. It looked like there wasn’t space for his dream. However, he believed he had value to offer runners. So even though nobody was buying his shoes yet, he set out, path unknown, to see if he could find people who wanted what he had to offer. He sought to be different, and eventually after many mistakes, he succeeded. Overnight when Nike went public, decades after his dream was born, Knight finally went from being perpetually broke to being worth $40 million.
What can we learn from Mr. Knight? Well, do you think that reading all those dumpster fires in your dental Facebook groups is going to keep you hustling towards your goal? What if Phil Knight was a new dental grad? He would be studying like crazy, looking for places where his skills could be put to use. He would be asking his patients if there is anything else he can do for them or their family. He would be asking his employer what skills would be most advantageous to learn. He would do demographics studies to see which areas of the country needed his services the most. Dental disease is all around you right now: caries, periodontal disease, acid erosion and cracks. What do you want your contribution to be in fighting these problems? A limited number of individuals are as privileged as you to do anything at all about it. You have a license to practice dentistry, which means you are the possessor of a critical piece of paper that allows you to solve a virtually unlimited supply of dental problems.
Give Value to Your Patients
Have you heard the saying, “Take good care of your patients and they will take good care of you?” It may sound cheesy, but it’s so true. The more you strive to add value to the patient experience, the more grateful they will be, and the more value you will create for yourself. It’s cyclical like that. Every time you sit and really listen to your patients, your team or the cashier in your town’s local grocery store, you are showing that you care. As you listen, you will see where you can add value. For example, if I’m sitting in a hygiene exam and I discover a patient has a stained margin on an anterior composite, I will offer to see if I can buff out the stain right then and there. It takes me 60 seconds max, it’s something that the patients cannot do for themselves and they love the result. Gratitude from your patients is value. Try it and see.
Keep Your Ear to the Ground to Find Unmet Needs
Dental disease is all over the country. Are you currently working in a place where your skills are underutilized? Too much downtime twiddling your thumbs instead of delivering care? I have good news for you! There are other places that need you more! How do I know that? Because our country is experiencing a shortage of dentists! Okay no, it may not be in NYC, L.A. or Seattle, but if you are willing to look, you will find a place that needs you. Besides geographic options, you also have the choice of working at different times or for a different demographic in the area you already serve. For example, many shift workers cannot get to a dentist during typical business hours. If you worked two evenings per week but your income went up significantly due to a shift in demand, would it be worth it? A colleague of mine works in an office called Day and Night Dental, and they are literally busy around the clock.
Remember that what you have to offer has tremendous value.
As a new dentist, I frequently felt apologetic about my fees. I didn’t want to tell people how much things cost, or I often downplayed the cost. I didn’t think very much about the fact that the services I could provide were much less costly than no care at all. For instance, many times a crown is the most conservative, value-filled service you can offer. If it stops a crack from inching down the root of a lower molar or if it prevents a tooth from imploding on itself due to the poor support of the giant composite you would place instead, then yes, there is value! Think of the cost of the implant that would replace that tooth. Worse yet, think of the cost of not getting the implant. We all know it’s a slippery slope. You have the tools and the license to help a patient stop the slide.
Learn From the Smart People Who Have Gone Before You
There are about 200,000 dentists in America. They have all experienced similar, common challenges. From holding back a strong tongue to successfully blocking that pesky inferior alveolar nerve and even to the art of delivering bad news to a patient, many embattled dentists have been here before you. Find mentors. Learn from the greats. Seek out a tribe. Countless resources exist, including courses, podcasts, magazines, books and more. Look for the ones who lift you up. Put on your learner hat and be unstoppable in gaining skills to add value for your patients and your practice. You are going to literally change lives. Now get out there and make it happen!!!!