Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “Do the thing we fear, and the death of fear is certain”. I can think of no better way to describe my first year practicing dentistry. Like any journey of consequence it was not undertaken alone. It was possible only through the efforts and encouragement of family, friends and a few mentors who made me do now, what I was afraid I would not be able to do for many years. My purpose in sharing this in not to boast, but rather highlight what is possible when we do today that which our fears say we should put off.
A newly-minted dentist
I graduated from Baylor College of Dentistry in May of 2009, and I was like every other newly minted dentist. I left dental school with an academic understanding of what dentistry was and a rudimentary understanding of how to do it. I was nervous and excited about going into practice but I felt with enough time and experience I could become the kind of dentist that changes lives. It was just a matter of time. Most new dentists plan to spend a few years mastering the basics, then after 4 or 5 years they move into larger, more complicated cases and then maybe after 8 years they start doing basic implants. I would probably have done something similar had it not been for the influence of my father and Dr. Jim Downs.
After graduation I began working with my parents at their dental practice. It was a big transition. They had never had a full-time associate work for them, and as a new dentist I had no idea what to expect. My parents had always worked hard and served many patients, for years they did not reap the benefits of which they’d always dreamed. Instead, they struggled each month to pay the bills, much less take home paychecks. Six years ago my father’s dental practice did not do enough business to support one dentist, much less two. At the time he was seriously considering the possibility of giving up dentistry all together. It was around that time he heard about a course offered by the Dr. Dick Barnes Group. The knowledge he gained forever changed his life and was about to have a profound influence on my career.
Focus on the patient experience
One of the things they don’t teach in dental school is how to effectively lead your staff in a way that focuses on the patient experience. It is difficult to leave dental school, a place where you are told what and how to do everything, and enter a dental practice where you are expected to lead and provide the answers. My father insisted that I meet Tawana Coleman. The experience changed me in a profound way. Tawana helped me realize the difference I can make in the world as a dentist. I gained a sense of purpose, and at that moment, dentistry stopped being about income and instead became my personal means for giving back to people. It impressed upon me the importance of learning now, the skills needed to provide my patients the outcomes they deserved. My plan of mastering the basics for the next few years was no longer an option, a scary thought for a dentist just three months out of school.
My dental school teaching was outdated
I was introduced to Dr. Jim Down’s when I attended the Over The Shoulder: Full Arch Reconstruction Course in October of 2009. As he lectured I discovered that much of what I had been taught in dental school was outdated. He showed me how to prep and temporize fourteen units in less than two hours. I was amazed, but doubted I had the experience necessary to do it. “Maybe next year” I thought. Then Dr. Downs said something that hit home. “These cases exist in your practice now! You just don’t see them because the fear of full arch dentistry blinds you to the possibility. Find a full arch case on Monday and do it!”
I took his words to heart and after summoning the courage to find that full arch case; I prepped, impressed, and temporized a full arch in three and a half hours. I could hardly believe it. Just six months previously in school, it had taken me three and a half hours to prep a three-unit bridge. I realized in that moment that skill is a function of doing, not years in practice. If you let fear keep you from doing, you will never reach your full potential and your patients will suffer as a result. Since that first full arch case I have now prepped two more full arch cases, and I am currently working on a full mouth restoration.
Feeling my insecurities wane with the success of my first full arch case I made the conscious decision to begin exploring the potential of implants. I decided to attend Dr. Downs’ Over The Shoulder: Implant EZ course. I was hesitant at first because implants in dental school had seemed like rocket science that only a highly trained surgeon could perform. While my dad had been placing implants for five years, I figured his ability came from 25 years of experience in the field. I doubted I had the knowledge or the experience.
Achieving better outcomes for my patients
After the two-day course, I had a good understanding of how to do it, but I still feared the experience part. My father encouraged me to move past my fear. I took that initial leap of faith and achieved an excellent outcome for the patient. Since then I have placed six implants. While the number seems low, realize that it’s six more than most general dentists do in their entire career. With the mentorship of Dr. Jim Downs and the expertise of my dental lab, I am able to confidently select the proper cases and achieve better outcomes for my patients. The initial fear has become success and increased confidence.
While I hesitate to discuss numbers, let me share that, salary aside, I produced $500,000 in my first six months of practice. If you extrapolate that out, I earned $1,000,000 in my first year! That’s not bad for a first-year dentist, working in suburban Texas in a tough economy. The best part is that the money isn’t the primary focus—the patient is.
The fog of fear that once obstructed my view has dissipated. I now see more clearly what my patients need and can present it knowing that I can deliver. I am truly grateful for the guidance and influence of my mentors, my family and the support of my dental lab. They have made me a better dentist by helping me face my doubts and move pass them. As I said in the beginning, I am just like every new dentist, and what has happened for me can happen for every dentist, if you will just find those people who will help you put fear in its place.