No matter the setting: Patients remain at heart of rural, urban dental practices

When Dr. Cassie Berens graduated from dental school, she knew she wanted to work in a small town.

A native of rural Iowa, Dr. Berens joined a practice in Atlantic, Iowa, after receiving her undergraduate degree from Iowa State University and dental degree from Midwestern University College of Dental Medicine – Illinois in suburban Chicago.

Dr. Cassie Berens of Atlantic, Iowa, takes her dog, Ruby, to a local pond where she walks every day.

“When I graduated my last year of dental school, I knew I wanted to go back to a small town, but I knew I wanted to be somewhere between Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; and Denison, Iowa — only because my husband and I both grew up in Denison — but we didn’t want to be quite two hours from a city,” said Dr. Berens, 29.

Atlantic, with a population of about 7,000, is roughly an hour from each of those cities. Dr. Berens co-owns Nishna Valley Dental with another dentist, Dr. Taylor Schroeder, and lives in town with her husband, Sean, and dog, Ruby.

Dr. Leonard Johnson had a different idea when he graduated from dental school: He wanted to live in a big city. After completing his undergraduate degree at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and dental degree at Marquette University School of Dentistry, he worked in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, for a time and then moved to Atlanta.

“Living in Mobile, I just wanted to move and do something different,” said Dr. Johnson, 33. “I knew that moving to Atlanta, I’d be able to grow myself as a professional and maybe be able to move back to Mobile one day and have my own practice.”

Although he lives in the city, he works as a general dentist at Westridge Dental Care in McDonough, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

Dr. Leonard Johnson of Atlanta attends the New Dentist Conference during ADA 2018 – America’s Dental Meeting in Honolulu.

No matter where they practice, both Drs. Berens and Johnson agree it’s the personal connections they make that lead to their success.

“Our marketing is being present at church, being in the parades, going to the Friday night football games, going to golfing events, sponsorships, you eat out at the community events — just different functions you attend — so that way, our marketing is just being involved in the community,” Dr. Berens said.

While Dr. Johnson’s practice does have a marketing team, establishing Westridge Dental Care in the community also requires a more individualized approach.

“It takes that more personal, one-on-one type of face time with those businesses and with the community period,” he said.

Part of what attracted Dr. Johnson to the Atlanta area was the ability to grow as a dentist through continuing education opportunities.

“I just knew it would give me a chance to be able to get additional training in those areas that I feel I would need training in and also allow me to provide more for my patients,” he said.

Because there are not many dental specialists near Atlantic, Dr. Berens keeps her skills active and updated by providing a wide range of services herself.

“It’s good in the fact that I get to do a lot of different areas of dentistry and expand my skills,” she said. “But then it’s also a negative because sometimes you need patients to see a specialist for a second opinion, but they don’t want to drive an hour to see one.”

Dr. Berens’ mortgage is about $1,000 less than what her rent had been in the Chicago area during dental school, and her home is only about a five-minute drive to her practice. But she does need to drive about 60 miles to get to a Target or Starbucks.

Still, she finds plenty to do in Atlantic and the surrounding towns, including attending community events, spending time at a nearby lake, visiting wineries and pumpkin patches with her friends and family, and getting involved with civic organizations.

While the cost of living is higher in Atlanta and Dr. Johnson’s commute is about 30 to 40 minutes one way, it’s worth it to him to live in the city for the social opportunities it presents, including attending professional sports games and visiting the quintessential tourist attractions, like the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola museum.

While their personal lives may be different, both say the biggest joy of their professional lives is their patients.

“I love seeing the different family generations, watching kids grow up, connecting each of the families,” Dr. Berens said. “That’s kind of fun to follow everyone and see all those interactions and connections.”

Patient interactions are key for Dr. Johnson too.

“It just amazes me the number and the types of patients I get to interact with; that’s probably the biggest reward to me,” he said. “And just getting to know them on a personal level too.”

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