Interviewing for a Successful Associateship
by Sandy Pardue
Working as an employee in a practice might not be the
number-one choice among dentists who are starting their
careers, but it can be a smart move.
Unless you are a second- or third-generation dentist, you
probably don’t have a lot of practice management experience.
Working as an associate gives you the opportunity to learn the
business side of dentistry. You can gain “real-life” experience
managing the practice and staff while paying down student
loans and gaining clinical experience with no financial risk. If
you plan on buying in to the practice, an associateship gives you
an opportunity to “try before you buy.” Dentistry can be a
lonely profession. An associate position can provide you with a
sounding board; a partnership that can include mentoring,
which is extremely valuable to a new dentist. It can help lessen
those “I wish I’d known that” moments down the road.
Of those associateships that fail, most fail because of what
didn’t occur before the relationship officially began. The owner
doctor and perspective associate failed to properly analyze the
practice to see if an associate was needed in the first place.
Another reason might be because they never shared their goals.
They were mismatched and had unfulfilled expectations, either
on the part of the owner or associate. They were heading in different
directions, a common denominator for most break-ups in
life. This could have been avoided with better planning and better
communication. Here are some key points to enhance the
associate interview and working relationship.
Establish personal goals
Before considering any position, you need to establish your
personal goals. Unless you know what you are looking for, you
might never find it. What is your purpose for seeking an associate
relationship? Better planning will help prevent disappointments,
stress and loss of time in the future.
Factors to consider:
- • You want to work as an associate temporarily and do a
start up in a few years
- • You are interested in a partnership or buyout
- • Office location [consider that if you start your own practice
in the future, you might have a non-compete clause
- • You prefer working on children or adults
- • The procedures you enjoy most
- • The procedures you enjoy least
- • CE goals
- • Expected length of employment
- • Required salary range
- • Priorities
- • Vision
- • Practice philosophy
- • Facility requirements
- • Short-term and long-term personal goals
- • Short-term and long-term professional goals
Once you have established where you are going and you know
exactly the type of practice you want to work in, you are ready to
start your search. Use this list of goals to analyze a particular practice,
and see how each practice you interview measures up.
Can the practice support another dentist?
Many times the idea of hiring an associate appears to be a
solution when a practice is struggling with keeping one dentist
busy. I’m not sure how this myth got started, but it just doesn’t
work, even if they are considering a marketing campaign. This
is definitely not a solution. An associate should be considered when the owner dentist can no longer handle the number of
patients in the practice or wants to cut down the amount of days
worked. Many times a son or daughter graduates and joins a
practice that doesn’t have enough patients to keep them busy.
My advice is to resist the temptation if the practice was not in
the market for an associate.
You will need to verify that the practice can support two
doctors. You can easily do this by learning the number of
active patients from the computer software. I’ve seen practices
try to determine this number by counting the number of
physical patient charts, but this is not the correct way to do it.
A computer-generated report will show you how many individual
patients have been in the practice over a certain period
of time. I use an 18-month period. You will need to ask the
owner doctor to supply the report and look it over with you.
You should also ask to see a computer-generated report showing
the number of new patients by month, over a 12-month
period. In my opinion, the minimal requirements to support
a second doctor is 2,000 active patients and 30 or more new
patients each month.
You should be considering a salary range and be aware of
what you will need to produce to meet your compensation goal.
If you are going to be paid the standard 30 to 33 percent of collections,
you will need to produce at least $300,000 to get in the
neighborhood of $100,000 gross. You will never reach this if the
patient flow is not there for you.
How do I learn about associate
The best way to find an associate opportunity is through a
recruiter. It will save a lot of time and from my experience, practices
utilizing a recruiter to find an associate have better success
with the entire process. Typically, the recruiter has experience with interviewing potential associates and is excellent with
matching specific short- and long-term goals.
Interview with owner doctor
The interview process goes two ways. You are being interviewed,
but you are also interviewing the owner dentist.
Preparing your interview questions in advance will help you
identify exactly what he or she is looking for, ensuring better
compatibility. This will help you better predict compatibility.
Questions for the owner dentist:
- • What types of procedures do you expect the associate
- • Will the associate have management responsibilities?
- • Do you feel the current scheduling system could be
- • What days and times do you anticipate an associate working?
- • Have you thought about how you plan on paying
- • Will the associate be responsible for paying any practice
expenses such as lab costs, supplies?
- • How are new patients brought into the practice?
- • How do you feel about marketing?
- • How many weeks of vacation do you take?
- • How much treatment does the practice have outstanding?
- • What is the percentage of production collected?
- • What percentage of the schedule is filled each day?
- • Do you have regular staff meetings?
- • How many staff, and how long have they worked in
- • How do you feel about continuing education?
- • Are you a member of any dental associations?
- • Are you a member of any charitable organizations?
- • What do you consider the strengths of the practice?
- • What do you consider the weaknesses of the practice?
- • What are your goals for hiring an associate?
You are going to learn a lot about the practice and the doctor
from this conversation. Pay special attention to the part
about the staff and length of employment. If the doctor has a
turnover problem, or is critical of his team, that might be a clue
about how an associate would be treated. A good employer
might be one who has trained and groomed others like yourself
having them move on to fame and fortune after working under
him or her. Learning your goals and preparing questions for the
owner doctor will also prepare you for the interview.
Questions you can expect to be asked in the interview:
- • Are you interested in buying into a practice?
- • What are your plans for the future?
- • What compensation and benefits do you expect?
- • Is there anything that could change your plans?
- • Tell me about a time you had a disagreement in the office.
- • How would you handle an employee who started
- • How do you feel we should handle patients who continue
to break appointments?
- • What can you bring to the practice?
- • What is your management style?
- • What are you most interested in learning?
- • What procedures do you enjoy most? Which ones do you
enjoy the least?
- • What do you consider your most difficult procedure?
- • Describe the ideal new patient visit.
- • How do you feel about dental insurance, PPOs?
- • You will most likely be asked about your experience with
specific technical procedures.
- • How much time will you need for single crowns, molar
endo, two surface composite, etc.?
After the interview process and things are looking favorable,
plan to spend at least a couple of days in the practice observing and listening. You’ll be able to get a first-hand feel for the practice
tone and style. Plan some time away from the practice with
the owner dentist to attend social events such as golf or dinner
with the spouses. This will be beneficial in making your final
decision about joining the practice. Before you make your decision,
you must verify that the practice is ethical and safe. Check
with the state board about past complaints and ask around the
dental community to learn more about the practice.
I’m often asked for a good associate contract, one that will
guarantee a successful relationship. While a well-written contract
is important, there is so much more to the relationship. It
is important that you do your due diligence to avoid a mistake
that could cost you years that can never be replaced. A lot of the
contracts I have seen look like they were borrowed and shared
by many different dentists, who got it from another dentist and
so on. Hire an experienced attorney.
For an associateship to be successful you must have affinity
for the practice owner and you have to agree on the practice
model. Dentistry is a great profession. Open up your eyes, ears
and hands so that the owner doctor can share years of experience
Sandy Pardue is an internationally recognized lecturer,
author and practice management consultant. She has
assisted hundreds of doctors with practice expansion and
staff development over the past 20 years. She is known for
her comprehensive and interesting approach to dental
office systems, and offers a refreshing point of view on how to become
more efficient and productive in a dental practice. Sandy is director of
consulting with Classic Practice Resources. She is also a consultant to
leading dental companies for product evaluation and design. For more
information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find
Sandy on Dentaltown.com by her display name “Sandy Pardue.”