I’ve known a lot of dentists in my time, and while they have many wonderful qualities, I think it’s safe to say that most of them don’t think of themselves as businesspeople.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t want their practice to make money, just that they tend to see themselves as expert service providers rather than business owners. Their main responsibility, they feel, is to deliver great outcomes for their patients, and as long as they’ve got enough cash flow to support their clinical work every other aspect of running a practice – management, HR, marketing, IT, finances, legal – is secondary.
Of course, a dentist should always be focused on providing the highest standard of clinical care. I expect nothing less from the practitioners I work with.
Problems arise, though, when dentists undervalue the operational side of their practice, either thinking that they can take care of everything on their own, or not making enough effort to get the right staff and systems in place to build a thriving and dynamic business. This is a recipe for chaos, confusion and burnout, and no matter how sharp your clinical skills, eventually your patients will suffer for it.
Why is it that so many dentists struggle to think like businesspeople? And what can you do about it? In this blog, I’m going to explain how adopting a more entrepreneurial mindset can help you grow your practice and go on delivering world-class treatments for your patients.
The Risks of Thinking Like a Dentist
Running a successful dental practice is a complex job. Apart from the clinical side, you need to know how to manage and motivate a team, how to execute a successful marketing campaign, how to control cash flow and invest to grow the business, and much, much more.
They don’t teach any of this at dental school, and it’s difficult for up-and-coming practitioners to gain the experience they need early in the careers. Associate dentists simply don’t have to deal with any of the responsibilities that come with being an owner, and so when the time comes to take charge of their own practice they’re often shocked by the scale of the task they’ve taken on.
Unfortunately, a common response to this challenge is to believe that, as a highly skilled and qualified professional, you can deal with everything on your own. Why waste money on external HR when you can manage your own staff directly? Why shell out for professional IT support when you can take a six-week course and handle it yourself?
Pretty quickly, many dentists find that they’ve appointed themselves as their own practice manager, legal consultant, computer technician, bookkeeper, accountant, and all-round general dogsbody. They end up working seven days a week, permanently on call to the practice, because if they step away for a second, the whole show could come crashing down around them.
At this point, burnout is an inevitability. Standards will start to slip, and you’ll find yourself cutting corners, or just plain forgetting to do things out of sheer exhaustion. This heaps more pressure on your staff and creates a poor experience for patients, driving away business, hurting your bottom line, and jeopardising the future of the practice.
Ultimately, the love of the job that brought you into dentistry in the first place will start to wane, and you’ll be wondering how long you can hang on in the profession.
Finding the Right Help
How can you steer away from this burnout spiral? The first step is to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. This doesn’t mean giving less time or energy to your clinical work, it simply means having a clear plan for how you want to build, scale, and ultimately exit from your practice. With this in place, you’ll know what staff you need to hire and what systems you need to create in order to realise that vision.
As a principal practitioner, you need to accept that it’s simply not possible for you to have complete oversight of your practice. Your field of vision is narrowly focussed on how best to solve your patient’s problems – which is as it should be. It’s not up to you to be constantly checking in with your front-of-house staff or to make sure new patients keep coming through your door. That’s what your manager is for.
Your practice manager is the single most important hire you will ever make. It’s their job to provide leadership to your staff, to instil them with confidence and responsibility, to attract and retain new business and to drive improvement and growth throughout the practice. If you don’t get this appointment right, you’ll never have a functioning team.
In many practices, the manger is someone who has worked their way up from a position as nurse or in front-of-house. They might have great relationships with the rest of the team, but their background means they’ll inevitably lack experience and training in business management. Are they really going to know how to run an effective digital ad campaign, or to understand which IT systems you need to scale your practice?
At East Midlands Orthodontics, we have a practice manager whose job is to oversee clinical operations, and a business manager to take charge of the commercial side. If you can’t yet afford to fill two separate roles, then you need to make sure that your practice manager has the necessary experience of business management.
Having a clinical background is great, but not essential – what’s crucial is that your manager has the commercial and organisational nous to help your business survive and thrive in the long run. Unless there’s someone within your practice who already has this skillset, this will mean looking for an external candidate, but I promise you, it’s worth the effort to make sure you’ve got the right person in place.
If you’ve managed to become a practice owner, then in many ways your career has already been a great success. You’ve aced your training, built up a wealth of clinical experience and are probably taking home a tidy pay packet. You deserve to take pride in your achievements, but at the same time, you can’t afford to let this pride hold you back from growing your business to its full potential.
Being a leader means having the judgement to know which tasks are outside your skillset, and the humility to ask for help when you’re faced with a job you can’t handle on your own. For you, this means hiring a manager who has the skills and experience to help you realise your vision, someone who can do what it takes to get your practice growing while you focus on doing what you do best: putting beaming smiles on your patients’ faces.
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