Looking Inward

Ask, “What Kind of Dentist Do I Want to Be?”


Ask,”What Kind of Dentist Do I Want to Be?”

A new year is the ideal time to take a moment and examine your life—both personally and professionally. This is not a passive activity—it is a conscious effort to stop what you are doing and examine how you are performing and where you might be missing some opportunities. As dentists, sometimes we have to force ourselves to pause and to recognize those opportunities that habit and tradition may be blinding us to.

Throughout my career, the process of introspection has resulted in some profound insights that allowed me to find a level of success and satisfaction that eludes too many dentists. I humbly submit to you a few of those realizations.

Early in my career, I was having a difficult time making ends meet and finding the level of satisfaction that I had envisioned in dental school. I just couldn’t understand why things weren’t happening for me. I had graduated from dental school, put in the hard work, and was ready to reap the benefits. I forced myself to stop what I was doing and ask the question, “What kind of dentist do I want to be?” The answer, though it initially seemed simple, was actually more complex.

I had to dig deep and ask myself, “Will I be a dentist that treats the classes or the masses?” For too long, I had been tailoring my case presentations to what I thought my patients could afford, rather than what was the best that dentistry could offer. As dentists, only offering patients the dentistry that we think they can afford or what their insurance will cover is a “wait-until-it-breaks” approach. It robs the patient of the opportunity to get the best care and it steals higher levels of satisfaction and productivity from the dentist.

Therefore, I made the determination that I was going to treat all my patients as if they wanted the best dentistry possible. This changed my mindset and consequently changed how I did things. My mission was to share with every patient what was possible in terms of their dental care. I was amazed at how many of my patients started to see what I was offering as a value proposition rather than focusing on cost. I became a dentist who treated everyone the same, and because of that, I was able to have direct and honest conversations with my patients about what they needed. Plus, I was able to find ways to make it happen.


After taking time to stop and see my world differently, I also realized that I had to change my approach to large cases. During dental school and the early years of my practice, I focused on how many teeth were in a particular case because that is how cases were billed. For smaller cases (usually below five units), such a pricing structure is perfectly fine.

However, once dentists get above six units and start working on full arches or full mouth reconstruction cases, the price-per-unit strategy is no longer reflective of the skill it takes for such cases and the complexity involved in them. A full arch case is not just incrementally more difficult than a three-unit case. It is exponentially more complex. I continue to advise dentists that for large cosmetic cases, they need to consider the price of heart muscle and stomach lining that they may lose in the process.

Another great insight was the realization that doing large cases needn’t be as difficult as I was making it. For a long time, I thought it was only up to me to make these cases work. I was constantly on the telephone with different dental laboratories, trying to find one that would do things exactly the way I wanted them done.

Eventually, I realized that great achievements are rarely the result of a single person’s effort. I knew I had to find a team of people that I could rely upon to help me produce amazing dentistry. I sought out mentors and associations with other like-minded dentists.

I looked to build a team of front-office support people and hygienists that were as passionate about comprehensive dentistry as I was. Because of this, I went from being a dentist with excuses about how my patients couldn’t afford a full arch reconstruction, to being a dentist that patients of all income levels would seek out because they wanted outstanding care.

I invite all of my colleagues, regardless of where they are in their careers, to pause for a moment and look at their world differently. If you find that you are not where you want to be, or that there is something more you want out of dentistry, start moving in a different direction.

A Chinese proverb says that the longest journey begins with a single step. I have worked diligently my entire career to help other dentists find the joy in dentistry, like I did. Make it your goal to present the best option to every patient. Surround yourself with people who can help you. If you need a mentor or a new direction, start on that journey today. I wish you all a happy and productive new year.

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Dr. Dick Barnes is the leader in practice development for today’s cosmetic practice. A graduate of Marquette Dental School, he began his general dentistry practice in Rialto, California. As his practice, skills and reputation grew, he became known as one of the world leaders in cosmetic dentistry. In addition, Dr. Barnes taught at Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California, at their respective dental schools.