Coaching Corner

Five Things I didn't learn in Dental School

Samson Liu, DDS, MAGD

Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Heartland Dental Care and full-time practicing dentist at mywildwooddentist.com in Wildwood, Missouri.

Since graduating dental school and the start of his career at Heartland, Dr. Liu's practice has grown to a 12-chair office that averages $3 million in annual revenues. When he is not working, Dr. Liu still manages to find time to ski.

  • 1) Patient base is not important; Patient care is.

    If you are like me, you were taught that you would graduate from dental school, work a few years with a group or as an associate to pay down student loans, open a practice of your own, make lots of money, and live the good life. I'm sure that you, like me, envisioned working in a practice with a fee-for- service patient base with the means to pay for the dentistry they needed. With these lofty expectations, you can imagine I was a little disappointed when I started my career at an office where the patient base was far from my ideal scenario. Looking back on it, I realize I was "unconsciously incompetent" – I didn't know that what was important was the care I offered each patient moreso than the patient base I was offering it to.

    Over time I found that being a dentist is a lot like learning to ski. Dental school is like taking lessons on the bunny slopes, but the modern patient is a double black diamond. By treating a variety of patients with care, I built up speed, did more complicated procedures, learned to handle increased patient flow, and became more cost conscious and efficient. All of this gave me the self-confidence and experience I needed to stand on my own.

  • 2) There is no such thing as a Perfect schedule.

    The fact is that disruptions happen throughout the day, and constant focus is required to manage them. Once I realized that the ideal day didn't exist, I was so relieved! I stopped being frustrated and learned instead to deal with surprises quickly and efficiently. I now understand the significance of converting emergencies to full exams and hygiene to doctor and vice versa. Managing my time instead of wishing for a flawless routine really helped my practice take off.

    Nowadays my goal is never to think that I have mastered the perfect schedule, because the moment that I think I do, I am ignoring disruptions that could turn into opportunities. Making the most of every situation that I encounter can ensure that I have the perfect practice – even if the schedule isn't quite so perfect.

  • 3) Don't be afraid of failure. fear of failure is crippling!

    I used to worry that if I made a mistake my patients might not like me, or if I told them something they didn't want to hear they would leave or think badly of me. Coming face to face with my fear of failure – in any area, from public speaking to presenting a treatment plan to a patient – was crucial. Just like with skiing, I have to fall a few times to get better. Now I know if I'm not falling, I must not be challenging myself enough. Constantly challenging myself and learning not to fear failure allowed me to grow myself and my practice.

  • 4) Communication is key.

    To keep a practice thriving, communication is vital. When my office experienced a period of downturn, improving our communication with patients was the single most important step we took to turn things around. Changing our communication methods increased our patient pool, and improving our first impression with patients has had phenomenal results, from reducing no shows to raising treatment plan acceptance. This didn't just get my office through tough times, it reinvented the practice!

  • 5) Leadership is spelled t-r-u-s-t.

    Ultimately, there is more to being a good dentist than growing a successful practice. As a leader, I have the opportunity to invest in those around me. Heartland places a big focus on doctor leadership, and leading well requires trust. Looking back at my early years, I wish I had utilized my assistants more instead of doing it all myself. I have since learned to show my team members that I trust them by delegating. Now I am not just skiing, I am hitting the slopes with my team, lending them a hand to help them up when they fall and allowing them to learn and grow. Ultimately, efficiency has gone up and everyone is better for it.

    A day at the office may never be a day at the slopes, but these five lessons have gone a long way in making my office the success it is today.