Women in Dentistry: Q & A Elizabeth J. Fleming, DDS,

Four Women, Four Career Paths

Hello. I'm Elizabeth J. Fleming, DDS, (also known as Betty), the clinical director of Dentaltown Magazine. As a woman and a practicing dentist, over the years I've found myself interested in what opportunities other women have found in dentistry. I spoke with four women who have chosen unique career paths in dentistry, and shared those conversations here in the four following question-and-answer segments. I hope you enjoy learning about these women as much as I did.

Dr. Margaret Errante is the director of the Boston University Dental Health Center at the university's Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. She also serves as the assistant dean for business development. Errante has more than 30 years experience in the dental field, including 18 years as a principal in a multi-location group practice prior to joining Boston University.

Did you always want to be in academia?
I always thought that I would teach, but my career took me in the direction of a more administrative role in academics. Before joining Boston University I held a position as an adjunct clinical instructor at Pima Community College (in Arizona) where I supervised dental hygiene students on the clinic floor. This was a very rewarding and fulfilling role because I had the opportunity to work with the students and provide guidance on different techniques in dentistry.

Fortunately, while managing my practice in Arizona and also at the Boston University Dental Health Center, I have the opportunity to take on a mentoring role. I host study groups, peer reviews, and provide guidance to junior faculty and colleagues. What other positions in dentistry have you had in the years leading up to Boston University? I practiced dental hygiene prior to attending dental school. After graduating from the University of the Pacific, I was a principal in Associated Health Plans and Associated Dental Care Providers located in Arizona. After practicing for 18 years in Arizona, I moved to the East Coast.

Why did you choose dentistry?
I thought it would be a great profession for a woman, providing a great work and life balance, which is a rarity. The wonderful thing is I have the opportunity to pursue my career aspirations without having to sacrifice time with my family. So I have the best of both worlds.

Speaking of balance, how did you fit family in with your career?
At the time of my son's birth, the practice was really ramping up. Two weeks after delivering him I had to cover one of the offices for emergencies. I went to the office with a portable crib and my son in tow. The only reason it worked for me was because I had tremendous support from my husband. By the time my daughter was born, we chose a "role reversal" and my husband became a stay-at-home dad to allow a better balance between work and home. Much of my success was due to my husband and his efforts to keep the home front so stable.

Who are some of your mentors?
That's an interesting and challenging question because I have been influenced by many different people from a variety of professions, including dentists, dental specialists, business leaders and individuals who have great leadership skills. There's nothing more inspirational than to see people who can lead with ease. I like to understand the qualities or components of what makes them successful with their leadership.

I also believe in lifelong learning though continuing education opportunities, reading books on leadership and business and observing talent in many different forms.

What do you enjoy most about being a dentist?
I like interacting with patients, providing quality oral care, and making a difference in patients' lives. I especially like the flexibility of being able to work in a variety of roles in dentistry ranging from clinical to business to administrative to academic.

In your long and distinguished career as a dentist, what were the highlights?
Owning, developing, and growing my practice in Arizona was a major accomplishment for me. Also, I was instrumental in the major reorganization and upgrade of the Boston University Dental Health Center. I am especially proud of the community outreach throughout the years, through which we were able to provide complimentary dental services for lower-income patients.

What do you like to do outside of dentistry?
I come from an immigrant Italian family and family has always been a top priority. So I spend a lot of time with my husband and two children. I love to travel and enjoy cooking.

If you did not become a dentist, what would you have become?
Originally I aspired to be an orthopedic surgeon. But, looking back I think I would have pursued a career in business and studied to get my MBA. But just to set the record straight, I have never regretted my choice to become a dentist.

What words of advice do you have for dental students today?
I could probably go on forever when it comes to giving advice to the students because you want to guide them as much as possible. But, you have to understand that each student is different and some have to learn on their own accord. However, there are a few points that I feel are essential in order to have a rewarding career in dentistry. These points are:
  1. Be selective when it comes to opportunities to practice dentistry. Don't just take the first offer—really take the time to consider the options available to determine which is right for you.
  2. Manage your finances and learn to live within your financial means.
  3. Always do what is right for the patient.
  4. Be a life-long learner. Remain humble and give back to your community.

Dr. Lee Ann Brady is a privately practicing dentist in Glendale, Arizona and a nationally recognized educator, lecturer and author. Brady has worked with Spear Education and The Pankey Institute and is the director of education for Clinical Mastery in Tempe, Arizona. Brady is also on the editorial board of numerous dental magazines, including Dentaltown Magazine.

Why did you choose dentistry?
I had grown up in dentistry. My dad is a ceramist who owned a crown and bridge lab, so I was pouring models and doing wax-ups at an early age. The challenge of balancing home and work had me rethink my medical career choice, so I actually called my dad (who was away), to announce I was taking the DAT instead of the MCAT.

What's the story of your dental career and how did you become involved with so many of the top dental education groups across the United States?
After graduation from dental school I worked in a high-production office, and then bought a practice. Both of these experiences left me unsatisfied with dentistry to the point that in 1999, I sold my practice and quit. I was out of dentistry for three years when my husband lost his job. In order to take care of our responsibilities, I found an associate's job. I loved this job and the difference was the owner doc's commitment to high-level continuing education plus offering patients comprehensive treatment. I jumped on the CE bandwagon from then on.

Learning keeps me engaged in dentistry. While attending a course in Key Biscayne (Florida) I was asked to join the faculty of the Pankey Institute and the rest is history. I believe making a commitment to a journey of learning as we practice is the key to loving what we do. I'm so lucky that I also get to help other dentists discover that.

You are very career driven. What keeps you going?
I balance my work and my play really well, but it's deceiving because dentistry is my play. I love learning about dentistry and teaching dentistry. Talking about teeth is what I do for fun, and it happens to be my career as well. Now, I will also admit that I'm a gunner from way back, so achievement is hardwired into who I am.

Who are some of your mentors?
I could not be who I am without great mentors. Some have been teachers or people in leadership roles I have admired. Others are friends and fellow professionals. Finding people you can learn from is one piece of mentorship, but the other key ingredient is finding people you can confide in who will hold you accountable and pass you a Kleenex when appropriate.

What are your favorite sources of learning?
My favorite learning is always small group, hands-on education. Dentistry is a hands-on profession. Being able to build technical skills and practice our new learning in a safe environment without the pressure of a schedule and patients is key.

What do you enjoy most in dentistry?
This may sound strange but my favorite piece is the diagnosis. I think that's why I teach treatment planning so much, and why I find TMD fun. It's the mental game of discovery and putting the puzzle together.

How do you find balance in your life?
Above and beyond my work, my kids are one of my greatest joys. Spending time in their lives is key, even if it means texts and Snapchats when I'm on the road. My husband and I love to travel, and we set aside special time for date nights. Balance is a moving target and we are never perfectly in balance, but if we stay tuned in to the direction our lives tip in, we can tip it back when needed. Over time, the result is balance.

What do you enjoy outside of dentistry?
All three of my kids play lacrosse, and I love to go watch. I'm a voracious reader, I love to garden (even in Phoenix), and my husband bought me a piano for my 50th birthday this year because learning to play was on my bucket list. I love coming home and sitting down at the piano and playing. I have mastered Jingle Bells and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Describe your typical work week. How does it differ from when you began your career?
I see patients in my private dental office about 12 days a month, so a typical week I am in the office Monday through Wednesday, mostly single booked. My days are full of procedures. I love to do like aesthetics, implant prosthetics, complex restorative and TMD. Most Thursdays I get on a plane to go teach whether to a private study club, national meeting or for our Clinical Mastery courses.

Most dentists are perfectionists. How do you hold yourself to high standards, without creating unrealistic expectations?
I am definitely a perfectionist. One of the things I learn the most from is clinical photography. I photograph almost every case I do, the preps, the provisionals, etc. Later, I review the images and ask what I could do differently the next time to improve.

What was the best decision you made for your career?
To say yes when they invited me to teach in 2005. I had never taught anything before and was totally out of my comfort zone. I had to pick up my family and move them, and leave my practice. It was a leap of faith. It has been a wild ride ever since, but the best decision of my career.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
I would have started on my CE journey earlier in my career and not spent those first years simply doing what I had learned in school. I waited until the pain of not enjoying practice got so bad it forced me to do something different, instead of proactively figuring out what I needed to do to love my profession.

What words of advice do you have for dental students today?
Be a continual learner. Figure out what a dental practice needs to look like for you to love it, and then go create that practice!

Dr. Natalie Peterson has worked in a variety of positions in small practices, corporate chains and a group HMO practice. She also started her own practice from scratch in 2008. After four years, Natalie found that ownership was not her niche and sold the business. She's now working at a federally qualified health center (FQHC) where a majority of her patients are adults on Medicaid plans.

Peterson is a well-known poster on the Dentaltown online message board. Her ties to Dentaltown go deeper than that. In 2014 she was married at the Townie Meeting by none other than Dentaltown founder Howard Farran!

What will your next focus in dentistry be?
I would like to get involved in things outside of full-time clinical hands-on dentistry. I'd like to get involved in teaching either at a dental school or a dental hygiene or assisting program. I've always thought that teaching would be fun.

I have considered going back to school many times in the past—radiology and pathology have always been interests of mine—but the idea of being a student again and taking on more loan debt makes me think twice about that.

Why did you choose dentistry?
I wanted to be a neurosurgeon in the fifth grade but then found out that it's a lot of training, and yikes, brains. So I looked at my orthodontist and figured he had a pretty good gig and in my senior year of high school, my dentist hired me as a dental assistant. I found out I did not enjoy ortho, but I liked fillings, crowns and dentures. I liked fixing things, making them look nice and normal again. Even back then, I was not a fan of endo or oral surgery.

Who are some of your mentors?
My biggest mentor was my boss for seven years, Dr. John Dickinson. He was always excited about dentistry, always up for learning new things and trying new products. He taught me a lot by not pressuring us associate dentists to produce. He let us work at our own pace, doing the procedures we liked and avoiding those we didn't like. He wanted us to do good work for the patients. He passed away unexpectedly in 2012 and I miss him every day. There are so many things that come up and cases where I think, "What would Dr. D do here?" He was a dental MacGyver.

What do you enjoy most in dentistry?
Oooh, tough question. Honestly, I do enjoy removable prosthodontics. Here at FQHC I have done more dentures and partials in the last two years than in the previous 10 years combined. A lot of my denture patients have been the most fun to work with over the years.

Describe your persona outside of dentistry.
I love to read. I read pretty much anything, except self-help books. I love fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks and diet books. I watch too much TV. I love to garden, flowers mostly. It is harder to garden in Duluth though, due to a shorter season! We love our two spoiled cats, Baxter and Cita. Rick and I participate in Mission of Mercy events every year and plan to continue.

What made you decide to get married at the Townie meeting with Howard officiating?
I finally got married this year to my boyfriend of eight years, Rick Kump. Not wanting to saddle Rick to my practice debt, we started talking about marriage more seriously after my practice was sold. We thought about an Elvis chapel while at the Townie Meeting and kicked around the idea on Dentaltown.com. Then HoGo (Howard Goldstein) emailed me and said, "Why not do it at the Townie Meeting?" Howard Farran got ordained, so that was the icing on the cake!

Why do you post on the Dentaltown message board?
Lot of reasons. Most of my posts over the years have been silly/social posts. But I do try to chime in on real threads too, and share experiences. I've made lots of friends over the years, so it is a great way to stay in touch with those people. I've learned things I never would have learned otherwise. Like Greater Curve bands! And Apex products! I would never have been able to open my practice without it (the Dentaltown message board). I wouldn't have even tried.

What words of advice would you give to dental students today?
You must really understand the amount of debt you are taking on and how you are going to pay it off. Make sure you have a realistic idea of what your pay is going to be like. I think students these days are being fed some pie-in-the-sky ideas. I am worried for these kids coming out of school today. I would encourage them to look at debt repayment programs like public health and the military pretty seriously. Focus on getting your basic skills down while you are in school, and when you get out of school start growing those extra skills that you don't get as much exposure to in school.

What would you consider your greatest accomplishments to be?
I don't know! I guess building my practice from nothing and then selling it for a profit four years later is something. But honestly that almost feels like it happened in another lifetime now. Some days my greatest accomplishment is just getting the dishes done!

Dr. Joyce Bassett practices comprehensive restorative and aesthetic dentistry in Scottsdale, Arizona. She is an Accredited Fellow of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and will be the first female president of the AACD in May. Dr. Bassett is an adjunct professor at the Arizona School of Dentistry, where she has taught the aesthetic continuum. She is a national lecturer, published author and is a member of the editorial board of several peer-reviewed publications.

What drew you to dentistry?
My father, who was a dentist, wanted me to become a physician. When he applied to medical school, he did not get accepted. His second choice was dentistry. He wanted for me what he did not get for himself. But I did not want to be a physician. I wanted to get married and have four children and felt that the on-call responsibility of a physician would be too much. I felt a dental business model would be more compatible with my lifestyle choice. (But it didn't quite work out that way, the married with four kids part.)

Tell me the story of your dental career.
I started college at 16 and dental school at 19. I graduated from the Ohio State University at the age of 23 and started my own practice. I remember the first month I produced $29,000, and I thought, "Oh my God, I'm rich!" I grew to dislike dentistry and at the age of 27, wanted to quit. I met Dr. Rich Cohen, who suggested additional continuing education: occlusion, TMD and full mouth reconstruction classes from Kois and Dawson.

Then cosmetics classes came on the scene in the early 1990s and I enrolled at Case Western and Baylor. I started lecturing and began the journey to get my accreditation with the AACD, which took me many attempts before passing. They called me Dr. Susan Lucci since I was the annual presenter at the conference and never received the award. When I finally gained accreditation, I started my journey to fellowship and became a student at the Kois Center to better understand function and occlusion.

Are there any other AACD fellows in Phoenix?
I'm the only one in the state of Arizona that is a Fellow and also a member of both the American Academy of Esthetic Dentistry and the American Society of Dental Aesthetics.

What keeps you going?
I have so many tasks to accomplish. It fuels me to complete everything in front of me. The patient's satisfaction at the finish of cases invigorates me. What keeps me going at the podium is when women approach me at the end of my presentation and say, "How did you get here? I want to be like you. Tell me what to do."

I know that when they see a woman at the podium it motivates them and they strive for more. What keeps me motivated in the AACD is the knowledge that this organization is the preeminent source for continuing education for dentists to follow a pathway to success in cosmetic dentistry. The AACD and the Kois Center cultivate excellence in education for dentists.

Who are some of your mentors?
John Kois (founder of The Kois Center, a training institute in Seattle). There is no comparison. What are your favorite sources of learning? AACD, the Kois Center, the AAED, the American Academy of Restorative Dentistry, and the American Academy of Fixed Prosthodontics.

What do you enjoy most in dentistry?
Patients, the surgical procedures, the artistry of smile design, final outcomes, and the satisfaction of a case well executed.

How do you find balance in your life?
I exercise every day, first thing in the morning. That's my time. Then I accomplish tasks that I despise, immediately following my workout, so they are completed. This allows me to focus on the rest of the day with ease. Once I get to the office, I only perform patient care, which is a pleasure. I shut out the rest of the world and focus.

What do you enjoy outside of dentistry?
Sports, hanging out with friends, relationships, hiking Camelback Mountain, skiing, riding my bike.

How do you hold yourself to high standards without creating unrealistic expectations?
I presented at the Kois Symposium on failures, using my accreditation journey and mentor exam failures as background for this talk. I also use this presentation to open my lecture in my full-day classes, telling how to avoid negative self-talk and instead focusing on changing strategies to find solutions.

What is the best decision you made for your career?
I didn't listen to my dad when he wanted me to become a physician.

Would you have done anything differently as you look back on your career?
No, you can't go backwards, so every decision that you made was proper in that moment.

What words of advice do you have for dental students today?
Dental school education is just the beginning of a lifetime of learning. Build on this base and never think you have "made it." When you do . . . your learning ends and you won't improve from that moment forward. Continue to educate yourself with lectures and hands-on programs. Be a CE junkie. You can never stop learning.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment to be outside of dentistry?
The mentoring I perform for everyone in my path. I was not blessed to have children of my own, but I have demonstrated the village concept by rearing many children and students. I feel I can influence the lives of many, by my example.

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