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Many dental students dream of owning their own clinic one day. It's an admirable goal, and one that may provide personal and career satisfaction. But many graduates find there are benefits to being an associate. Here are points to consider about owning a practice or becoming an associate.

Take Dr. Timothy Lee as an example. Throughout his 28 years of career, Dr. Lee was once an associate and is now the owner of his own dental clinic, and here’re his insights to share.

Graduating from the University of Toronto in 1995, Dr. Lee says, his academic and professional studies gave him solid grounding in the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of dentistry as well as the fundamental skills to address a variety of healthcare issues. But individual practitioners often also need to acquire the administrative, entrepreneurial and other operational business skills for the clinic, hence he decided to launch his career by joining a mid-sized group practice as an associate to sharpen his dental skills first.

Being an associate in a group practice

He launched his career in dentistry with little more than a solid knowledge of the theory and philosophy of his craft, a firm commitment to the profession and a passion for the style of practice he envisioned. His seven years of being an associate in a group practice helped him to develop the confidence he needed. He valued the highly personal and professional relationships he formed and the abundance of collegial support that was always available as he navigated the day-to-day challenges of dentistry.

But Dr. Lee was also passionate about his vision of what a dentistry practice could be. “A group practice offers freedom, flexibility and support,” Dr. Lee says. “But consensus building and decision-making may frustrate independent, enterprising individuals.”

Advantages of being an associateChallenges an associate may face
  • No start-up costs
  • Any out-of-pocket expenses tend to be low
  • Associates enjoy the benefits of group insurance and regular salaries
  • Staff support is generally trained and readily available
  • It gives new dentists the time to “learn” the how practices are run
  • Working relationship with the principal dentist
  • Administrative and treatment procedures are determined by the principal
  • Less flexibility in scheduling work and vacation time
  • The reputation of the practice


Owning a dental practice

Driven by his vision of dental practice and fueled with professional confidence, Dr. Lee decided to start his practice. “The decision-making freedom gained from leaving group practice comes with many responsibilities. Solo practitioners wear many hats — all of the hats in fact,” Dr. Lee says. And the range of responsibilities also varies depending on whether you are starting a new practice or purchasing one.

For Dr. Lee, he chose to start his own practice and his first challenge was the location. He wanted to stay in Toronto, near family and friends. But he recognized there was more potential for growth in less-saturated markets.

Another challenge he faced was the administrative aspects of the practice, which could be overwhelming. Fortunately for Dr. Lee, he could rely on his wife to manage it, and this provided him freedom to focus on his top priorities — dentistry and implementing his strategic vision for growing his practice.

“Growing the practice means realizing your particular brand of dentistry. For me, it meant cultivating strong professional relationships with patients, investing time in understanding each individual’s concerns,” Dr. Lee says. “Focused attention fosters loyalty, stimulates referrals and organically grows the number of patients.”

Other responsibilities a practice owner may face:

  • You’ll be running a business in addition to seeing patients.
  • As your practice grows, many administrative responsibilities — staffing, billing, payroll, taxes, etc. — may become more complex.
  • Extended absences or vacations may affect the success of your practice.
  • There is no one for quick over-the-shoulder consults or to discuss situations as they arise.

Bottom line

“Relationships — the ability to cultivate, nurture, and learn from them — are fundamental to the practice of dentistry whether you work as an associate in group practice or as a solo practitioner,” says Dr. Lee, reflecting on the key factors that have served as catalysts at various milestones in his career. “As a new graduate, I knew the type of dentist I wanted to be. I had a lot of ideas, and I was eager to implement them. But the path to achieving my goals was paved by building important relationships.”

“Satisfaction in dental practice is readily accessible to both associates and solo practitioners who are willing to acquire the skills, build the relationships they need, and seize available opportunities to realize their goals as they arise.”

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