Surviving your first months as an associate

By | March 9, 2020

So you just finished dental school or a residency and you are ready to move in to a new world. You are done with academia for now or maybe forever. You decide to enter the private practice system as you have always imagined. Right before your first day you are a mix of excitement and anxiety. You must know it’s not going to be easy and you are going to make mistakes. You are not the first to go through this and listening to others is still imperative at this point. The best thing you can do is take some healthy recommendations.

Photo of Dr. Al-Karagholi

Dr. Al-Karagholi

In this article, I will give you my day one advice, based on my own experience, to surviving your first couple of months of being an associate. I am hopeful that you will pick up some confidence in your abilities. That confidence can facilitate your ability to grow strong and become the best dentist that you can possibly be!

First thing you notice is you are going from seeing a couple of patients a day to 10 or more a day and the pressure to perform effectively and efficiently is on you. You may panic for a second when you realize THIS is what you really signed up for and you may feel immensely overwhelmed. Well, take a second to breathe because you are not alone, and you can do this.

For now, focus on doing things right the first time and make sure your accuracy is maintained. You put all this effort in school to perfect your techniques and it’s not the time now to start cutting corners. You want to be just fast enough so your boss won’t fire you, yet you want to impress him or her with your results.

The critical lesson that you should learn early on is preparedness and organization are the true facilitators of efficient dentistry. If your assistant has to leave the room five times in a procedure to get your materials, you will get bogged down and your efficiency will not matter anymore. In addition to great preparation, remember that repeating  procedures as often as you can will lead to more efficiency and speed.

The second thing you may realize is that now you are mostly on your own. Yes, you may have some mentors and other doctors around you that can help but this is not the same type of backup as working in a large, yet highly organized school system.

Your immediate resources are limited and you have to learn the fine art of referral. The great Kenny Rogers sang “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.” Getting in over your head is bad for everyone involved and is against the ADA Principles of Ethics. It’s pure chaos that will keep you up at night. Do right for your patients and refer them when necessary. Take the time to meet some trustworthy specialists, have lunch with them sometime and discuss the cases you may find difficult to get a clearer understanding of your boundaries. Feel free to refer to them when you feel uncomfortable. If you really want to learn endo, more complex fixed, or certain perio procedures, you should get the continuing education you need to successfully treat these cases.

My third and final piece of advice is you have to learn how to talk to your patients. You are in private practice and not in a hospital setting or dental school clinic any more. The way to speak to patients can be really different. People in private practice are expecting an elevated level of service Here are some of my suggestions that can be important to your case acceptance and patient management.

  • You should be kind and courteous, just as most patients will be kind and courteous to you. There are boundaries to this if a patient is rude or has some odd quirks about them, and sometimes you may have to let a patient know this office is not right for them. Follow the advice for dismissing patients given by the ADA. Keep your dignity!
  • Be confident! Don’t let the patient feel any uncertainty in you. This is an immediate turn off. You must become the leader in the room and steer the appointment in the right direction!
  • Show that you care about your patients. Even in times when you feel like a robot, do not act like one. Introduce yourself briefly and then give each patient a glimpse at your personality! Talk to them about things other than dentistry. Smile, crack a joke, make a compliment, and generally just show them you’re human!
  • Speak concisely! Patients do not like when you repeat things. I repeat, patients and people in general hate redundancy! See how that feels? Get your words out and then ask them if they are following along or if they have any questions.

From all of this, you will quickly understand there is so much to learn and you are just starting your journey. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always meet these guidelines. You will see thousands of other patients in life and if you fudge things up with one it will be OK. Try your best to fix the situation even if it means calling for help. You can’t win all the battles you fight so humble yourself and move onwards!

Just remember to be passionate about your career even if there are some times you do not love it. People will see that passion and your capability thus facilitating their trust in you as their doctor! Love and respect yourself and that will translate to love and respect for others. Finally take care of your body, mind, and spirit and your dentistry will improve as well!

Dr. Adnan Al-Karagholi, also known as Doctor Don, is a private practice doctor in Falls Church, Virginia. He is a new graduate from VCU School of Dentistry, working under his father and mentor, Loyola University trained prosthodontist, Dr. Mustafa Al-Karagholi. His passion for dentistry stems from his upbringing in the dental field and his lifelong commitment to perfecting the art of high quality compassionate dentistry! You can follow him on Instagram @the_dontist for more! 

2 thoughts on “Surviving your first months as an associate

  1. Nithya

    Thank you, Dr. Al -Karagholi for such valuable advice and tips to survive day one in the organization. I believe this piece of advice is suitable and helpful for all doctors who need to know how to survive the new environment and how to face the patients. Best Wishes Dr.

  2. Dr Atipornwanich

    Thank you Dr Dr. Al-Karagholi

    You mentioned that the dirst thing we notice is you are going from seeing a couple of patients a day to 10 but recently we seen this number jump to 50 a day and its overwhelming.

    Keep up the good work.


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