New dentist builds reputation, business skills with associateship

When Dr. Samantha Arnold was looking for her first dental job four years ago, she visited three or four dental offices before she found the one with the right fit for her.

Dr. Arnold

“Something just felt right when I walked into this office,” Dr. Arnold said about the Pana, Illinois, family practice office at which she has been an associate since 2012. “It was a sense of comfort.”

Some new dentists like Dr. Arnold choose associateships after college. The capital-intensive nature and uncertainty of establishing a solo practice may not be feasible for new dentists who struggle with education debt upon graduation, according to the ADA Practical Guide to Associateships publication.

Dr. Arnold said it made sense for her to start off as an associate. While she’s gained innumerable skills and insight in her three years at Pana Family Dental, upon graduation “I didn’t know the first thing about running an office,” she recalls.

Associateships generally allow new dentists to smoothly transition from an academic environment to a clinical practice, gain time to clarify their values and goals and earn income without the financial risk and management responsibilities of a solo practice.

In most cases, an associate employee is not required to make any financial investment in the practice and does not assume the same degree of financial risk as the dentist-owner.

Dr. Arnold said her boss covers malpractice insurance costs and does the heavy lifting when it comes to managing the office staff.

“Not having to worry about that but to still be able to work in a private practice and build up my reputation and skills — those are the essential values of this position,” she said.

Still, there are times that associateships prove unsuccessful.

Unclear understanding of each dentist’s expectations and incompatible practice philosophies are among the reasons associateships can be unsuccessful, according to the ADA Practical Guide to Associateships.

To mitigate these risks, Dr. Arnold suggests that new dentists be aware of what they want from their employment experience.

She recommends considering these questions: How hands-on do you want the ownerdentist to be? Are you looking for a mentor or relative autonomy in your work environment?

Dr. Arnold said she appreciates that her boss gives her full discretion over patients and allows referrals if she decides that’s the right way to go. In fact, Dr. Arnold is the sole dentist in the practice a few days a week, she said.

Other issues Dr. Arnold suggests new dentists consider when searching for an associateship are whether they may want the option to one day buy in to the practice or if they seek a job “strictly as an associate.”

Associateship arrangements can vary widely, depending on the interests of the dentists involved.

Dr. Arnold urged new dentists to spend time in dental offices at which they’re considering employment, as she did a few years ago.

“Get to know the office before you jump in. Make sure it feels right,” she said.

The ADA offers resources for new dentists considering their next steps. The ADA Practical Guide to Associateships, which includes sample contract provisions, advice for avoiding common pitfalls and options for financial arrangements, is available at ADAcatalog.org by searching for product “J045.”

Information is also available at success.ada.org by searching for “Associateships.”

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