Finding the Right Situation for You
by Dr. Wade I. Newman
Like many dental students, I was obsessed with "getting through" dental school. Graduating was by far the top priority. The added strain of NERBS was a major concern, but I worked and studied hard so I was confident that the Boards were just another test that I would pass. Additional stressors that my fellow dental students had on top of everything else were nagging questions: Associateship? Start from scratch? Residency? Where am I going to practice?
I had the good fortune of answering those questions very early in my dental career, which saved me from some major anxiety. However, I witnessed what this added stress did to some of my colleagues and am familiar with several not-so-good work situations that several of my fellow dental students are in currently. To avoid these pitfalls, I'm encouraging you to start the planning process early.
Since college classes ended in May, my wife and I decided to use the May to September time frame, before I started dental school, to determine where we wanted to live. Having spousal support about where you are going to live is crucial. If your spouse isn't happy with the area, you need to find another area. We traveled and stayed in different towns, and both agreed on central Pennsylvania as the place we would like to live. From there I needed to find a dentist who needed an associate that was willing to let me buy in, not an easy task.
I read several ADA articles about associateships: different types, several contract samples and the like. Some articles mentioned in passing that the working relationship between the dentist and associate is something that should be considered. I think the relationship between the dentist and associate is one of the most important factors in a successful associateship. If the relationship isn't working, the associateship isn't working. I started out wanting to be friends with the dentist before I agreed to work with them.
Friendship is a very broad term, hard to quantify and harder to explain. I was looking for someone who was "on the same page." Similar life goals, values, work ethic and management style were important. This person had to be able to discuss problems and work toward a solution, be open to new ideas and respect that I may do things differently than he. I wanted to make sure the working environment was a good fit.
I began this process by sending letters to every dentist in the area in which I wished to work. This letter informed them that I was about to begin dental school, was definitely coming to the area after dental school and was looking for an opportunity. From this mailing I received one letter. Several phone conversations with this dentist went nowhere, and our communication styles were very different. Luckily, from a friend of a friend, I received word about a dentist looking to "retire."
A message was left for this "retiring" dentist. When he called me back, he informed me that he was starting to plan his retirement, although actual retirement was several years away. He seemed to ask the right questions, I seemed to give the right answers. We began a three-year courtship of one another. I went to his office several times during school breaks to get a feel for his practice philosophy and how he interacted with his staff. (This also gave me the opportunity to screen for NERB patients!) We had several dinners where our spouses got to know one another – we became friends. Once we were both satisfied that we could work well together, we began contract negotiations. Contract negotiations are truly the first test of a working friendship.
We agreed to hire the Blair, McGill, Hill Group as a transition mediator. After each draft of the contract was reviewed, he and I sat down and discussed each phase of the contract. Give and take happened on both sides, and we eventually agreed to the terms of the contract. The contract negotiation took one year, with the contract signed and in place prior to the NERB exam in April of my graduating year. Our contract is very detailed, and for that I'm very happy. Everything is spelled out so there is no room for different interpretations. Any contract you agree to should be this way - leave no room for doubt or it could really cost you time and money.
Many of my colleagues began this process of figuring out what they wanted to do right after they took the NERB exam. Can you imagine entering into a working situation when you are not sure if you can get along with the other dentist and staff members? Some of my friends signed the first contract they were offered, with expansive restrictive covenants and no clear career path. These people are now having a miserable time.
If you are going to begin practicing as an associate, my advice is to start planning early. Settle on a place to live, and then develop a friendship with a dentist to determine if they are someone you can practice with. With those parameters in place, the contract negotiations should go smoothly. If not, the relationship isn't what you think. Starting early also affords you the opportunity to go down several different paths to ensure that you find yourself in a healthy and happy situation.