How clinical management is empowering the modern day dentist: Alabama dentist shares thoughts

As dental director of Alabama-based nonprofit Sarrell Dental, Cory White, DMD, has seen various changes sweeping the dentistry industry. She spoke with Becker's Dental Review on the questions dentists should consider before joining another organization, such as a practice management group.

Question: What challenges are dentists facing today, as opposed to five years ago?

Dr. Cory White: Today, dentists face a lot of the same challenges that other healthcare providers face. How do we respond to the needs of our patients — both medically and personally — in an ever-changing healthcare landscape? At Sarrell, we primarily serve those who are enrolled in Medicaid. That means that we need to be aware of, and prepared for, federal and state policy changes.

Challenges include changes to Medicaid, aging baby boomers with more complex oral and overall healthcare needs, technological advances changing the practice of dentistry, shifts away from a volume-based healthcare system to one based on value — both in terms of an individual patient's quality of life as well as the health of the population overall.

Q: Why are dentists working with practice management groups in today's healthcare environment? What sparked this movement and do you see it continuing in the future?

CW: The decision about whether to join a practice or start your own is a deeply personal one. There are several factors that can influence a dentist's decision. A few factors that I think are leading more young dentists to choose a DSO or a nonprofit clinic like Sarrell Dental include:

•    Uncertainty about federal changes to healthcare more broadly and the impact on dental coverage.
•    The upfront investment required to start your own practice along with the rising cost of a dental education and burden of student debt.
•    We hear so much about millennials, but dentists graduating today do have a different set of priorities compared to those graduating 10 or 20 years ago. A different set of priorities makes DSOs more attractive.

Q: How can dentists benefit from joining a practice management group, like a DSO?

CW: Sarrell Dental is a nonprofit organization, so not a traditional DSO, but we do share similar attributes. For example, our providers are employees of Sarrell and therefore do not own clinics. Our operations team handles all management issues, including insurance, scheduling, information technology, etc. Personally, I find the value of working for Sarrell is that I don't have the worries of owning a business. It gives me and the providers I support the ability to focus on patients without having to also manage a business. It is nice being able to go home at the end of the day and have no additional responsibilities associated with being the owner/boss.

Q: Why may dentists be hesitant to join such organizations?

CW: It is no secret that healthcare as an industry is slow to adopt change. Dentists, like other medical specialists, have been growing their careers within traditional operating structures, but now have more options for career growth. Some dentists raise concerns about whether DSOs could dictate how a dentist can or cannot provide care. My personal experience at Sarrell is that clinic management shares the same person-centered goals as I do as a dentist. Dentists are empowered to make the best treatment decisions for their patients and management helps put processes and technology in place that support that same goal. Management staff helps support the clinical staff to reinforce the highest level of quality.

It all boils down to people. If the people who manage the practice and the people who treat patients make the right decisions for the right reasons, are committed to improving the health of those they serve and, most importantly, have fun, then the practice and the patients it serves will thrive.  

Q: What advice would you give to a dentist looking at joining a practice management organization?

CW: Whether you are a recent dental school graduate or an established dentist looking to make a change, deciding where you want to practice is a deeply personal process. Do you have a specialty you are focused on? What are your income goals? What kind of commute are you comfortable with? Is it important to you to always have the latest high-tech equipment? Do you want to primarily serve children or do you want to care for patients throughout their lifespan? Are you prevention-focused and do you value providing services in community settings? These are all important questions that dentists must ask themselves before making a career decision.

When I decided to join Sarrell Dental full time it was because I knew that caring for underserved children was my passion and Sarrell gave me the opportunity to impact children's lives in a meaningful way. I had little interest in running my own business, but I wanted an opportunity to mentor young dentists and provide growth opportunities for my fellow providers. Sarrell fit the bill perfectly. I encourage all providers to explore all of their options and not to eliminate any opportunity based on preconceived notions. I am always open to talking to any provider interested in learning more about what it is like to practice at Sarrell Dental — and in fact love that part of my job, too.

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