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How to Start a Dental Practice (And Other Career Options to Explore)

Date: May 08, 2019

Author: Ryder Waldron, D.D.S

A major decision for many new dentists and dental students is whether to start their own practice, work as an associate or start as an employee dentist for a practicing dentist, group practice or corporate group. But how do new dentists decide which option is best for them? Where can a student learn how to start a dental practice? What questions do they need to ask themselves and others in order to make a decision?

How Do I Know If Practice Ownership Is Right for Me?

As a practice owner, you will be able to set your own vision for the practice, decide which treatments and services you will offer and choose the staff you will work with, among many other desirable benefits. However, you need to ask yourself some important questions:

  • Do you feel comfortable and confident enough to run a business?
  • Are you able to deal with the stress of managing dental staff?
  • Are you willing and able to take on added debt in order to buy a practice or start one from scratch?
  • Are you enthusiastic about being a leader for your employees?

There's nothing wrong with joining an existing practice if you do not feel financially or personally ready to steer your own ship. Working under a good dentist can give you a mentor and role model if you change your mind.

How Does the Stress of Being a Practice Owner and Being an Associate Dentist Differ?

Working as an associate dentist eliminates the stress associated with ownership. In most cases you will not have to hire or fire any staff, pay any of the monthly bills, make any marketing decisions or take on debt for new equipment. You will get to show up for work, treat patients and take home a regular paycheck.

An associateship will give you time to increase your treatment speed and gain confidence in your skills. If you haven't decided what path to take, working in different practice settings can be a great way to help you decide what you want to pursue and whether or not you want to start your own practice.

If the option is available through your dental school, working as an intern at a private dental practice can get you familiar with dentistry in practice while having the comfort of working under an experienced dentist. You will also build the confidence you need to hit the ground running after graduation.

As an associate dentist you will likely be expected to hit certain production goals, and you may feel pressure to deliver treatments that you would rather refer to specialists. As an owner, on the other hand, you can decide how you want to handle referral situations.

Prior to accepting a position as an associate, it is important to clearly determine which treatments you will be expected to perform.

What Are the Financial Considerations of Practice Purchase?

Many dental students are graduating with a mountain of student debt. Purchasing or starting a practice could at least double that debt load. Add a modest mortgage, and a new dentist can be close to a million dollars in debt before they are six months out of school.

While this isn't frivolous debt, it can be intimidating or impossible to carry for a new graduate — but don't let it ruin your dream of practice ownership. Working as an associate while you look for the right practice can help you increase your working speed, learn the dynamics of a private practice and pay off some student loan debt, all while giving you time to get more on-the-job learning under your belt. Then you can later reassess your situation and, if you still want to, you can look for the right practice or place to start one

What If I'm Still Uncertain?

In my 15 years of practice, I have learned that one of the many great things about a career in dentistry is the job flexibility it affords. Different practice options require different skills and personality types, but also allow dentistry to be a fulfilling career that delivers years of satisfaction.

You can and should lean on your peers for their wisdom and career tips. Network with experienced dentists for advice on choosing a practice opportunity that is right for you, and find out what they like about their current employment and what they wish they had done differently. If you feel ready, ask them for advice on how to start a dental practice. If you have a dream of owning your own practice but don't feel confident enough to do it just yet, seek the training and mentoring you need now and keep pursuing your goal.

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