Office Visit: Dr. Ami Agbabli by Sam Mittelsteadt, editor & creative director

Dentaltown Magazine 

by Sam Mittelsteadt, editor & creative director
photography by Novo Studio

Dentists spend most of their working hours inside their own practices, so they usually don’t get many opportunities to see what it’s like inside another doctor’s office. Dentaltown’s recurring Office Visit profile offers a chance for Townies to meet their peers, hear their stories and get a sense of how they practice.

When Dr. Ami Agbabli says, “My goal is to use the gift of dentistry to make a real difference in the world,” she means it on multiple levels.

Most literally, this Townie started putting together dental mission trips to her native Togo while she was still a dental student at Meharry Medical College. And now, after nearly a decade, Agbabli also has co-founded charities designed to bring fresh water to villagers and housing and educational opportunities to orphans in the west African country, making her a great dentist to feature in our annual “Do Good” issue.

In this month’s Office Visit Q&A, Agbabli discusses how she ended up moving to the United States instead of Canada, why she’s so driven to better the lives of Togolese citizens, and her experience as (what she believes to be) the only Black dental practice owner in Northwest Arkansas. She also explains why she loves doing nonsurgical endo—but knows her limits—and how Dentaltown’s message boards have helped her succeed at what she considers the most challenging parts of being a practice owner.

Office Highlights

Dr. Ami Agbabli

Graduated from:
University of Alabama Birmingham,
bachelor’s degree in biology;
Meharry Medical College,
Nashville, Tennessee, DDS

Faith Family Dental,
Springdale, Arkansas  

Practice size:
1,600 square feet;
3 operatories, with 1 extra room ready to be plumbed

Staff size:
1 hygienist, 2 assistants,
1 patient care coordinator

Let’s start at the true beginning: You were born in Togo, a small nation in West Africa, and lived there until you were a teenager. Tell us about how you
ended up moving to the United States.

The plan always had been for my siblings and me to pursue higher education abroad after we graduated from high school in Togo. I had hoped to study in Montreal, because I speak French and it would have been easier for me to integrate there, but fate decided differently: During my senior year of high school, my mother became terminally ill and my father decided to send me to the U.S. to finish high school. I lived with my oldest brother, who had moved to Alabama a few years before to attend college.

What was that transition like?

I remember arriving in the States on a Sunday night and having to attend class the next morning. Despite knowing zero English—I learned it as I went—I did well in school and even received an outstanding award in science at the end of the year. Before I could earn my high school diploma, though, I had to retake the English part of the high school exit exam in the summer. (That was to be expected, I guess.)

How did you develop an interest in dentistry?

I was sent to the States with the goal of becoming a medical doctor, not a dentist. I started as a pre-med student, studied for the MCAT and almost sat for the exam. I changed my interest from med school to dental school during my junior year in college, after I met a female U.S. Army dentist who talked about work-life balance, financial stability and other dentistry-specific facets that interested me. Not only that, but there were not many dentists in Togo, compared with physicians.

At first my father wasn’t thrilled about this change of direction, but when I went back to Togo in 2012 to do a dental mission, he could see I was in love with the field.

What sort of mission was that?

I put together my first dental mission trip during my senior year in dental school, with the support of my fellow students and some faculty members at Meharry Medical College, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. It was an unforgettable experience.

I started doing humanitarian work at a young age. I’m very privileged to come from a good, stable home; contrary to how the media tends to portray Africa as a very poor “country,” it’s actually a rich continent that’s home to many highly educated, successful people and beautiful places. I watched my parents donating to different charities growing up; they were the most generous people I have ever known. Year after year, they’d sponsor education for children in some remote villages, so more kids would have a fair chance in getting educated.

That’s how I fell in love with doing humanitarian work. I would love to do that full time one day, changing the world one smile at the time. Being a dentist who has a big heart for human beings is something I cherish dearly, and my goal is to use the gift of dentistry to make a real difference in the world. Access to dental care is a privilege that most people in developing nations cannot afford.

You jumped into practice almost right after graduating from dental school.

I graduated on May 19, 2012, and had my first child on June 3. I took a few months off to bond with my son before returning to dentistry..

Now, that’s a challenge/reality that female dentists have to face: Returning to practice after maternity leave is one of the hardest things, which most of our male colleagues have no clue about. I’ll take this opportunity to encourage male dentists to be more gracious and supportive toward female colleagues who return to work after having a child. I also encourage dental recruiters to be more human and understanding while interviewing new mothers looking for opportunities after a break. (Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience!)

How did you end up in Arkansas?

My husband, a Walmart corporate employee, wanted to work at the company’s home office in Bentonville, which is in northwest Arkansas.

I didn’t have a great experience in that city—working at a practice where some patients felt comfortable announcing, “I don’t want to be treated by the Black girl”—so I started thinking about the dentistry I wanted to do and where I wanted to do it. I left that practice after four months and started looking for my own place in Springdale, which is a smaller community but a better fit for me because it was more diverse, thanks to a large Hispanic population.

The side of town I wanted to practice in had no other dentists in the area back then. I knew I wanted my practice to be in a shopping center (for visibility and foot traffic) and I knew I wanted to serve the lower-income community, so I drove around looking for “for rent” and “for sale” signs. When I finally found a location, it turns out it had been a dental office years ago and was already plumbed, which was a plus.

You mentioned that you believe you’re the only Black solo practitioner in northwest Arkansas.

As far as I know! I have patients who drive across town to come to us, and one family told me they drive 3½ hours each way because they want to be treated “by someone who looks like them.” We also receive phone calls from folks who live too far to come to us, but want us to recommend a Black dentist they can go to. Over the past year, we’ve also seen an increase in people who were specifically seeking out Black providers in the area. (I believe this is a result of the rise in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement.)

Your patients are so good at spreading the word that you don’t do very much outside marketing.

Except for one billboard, I stopped doing marketing in 2019, and we still get 35 to 40 new patients every month—sometimes more.

Early on, I spent a lot on marketing but the ROI was poor, so I made the decision to put 100% of my focus on customer care. I started hiring smartly, instead of just looking for candidates with experience only. I also started to lead by example as the practice owner; the staff will pick up on that much faster than spending hours training them to treat patients with much love, respect and care. Getting to know more about my patients, their kids, loved ones, pets, careers, etc., was the difference-maker for me.

We started getting a lot of word-of-mouth referrals, so I created an internal referral card, which we give to patients at the end of their appointments. If a new patient brings in the card, both the referral patient and the referring one get $50 off their next treatment. There’s no cap on how many discounts a referring patient can earn. So far, this strategy has worked great; I don’t spend much money on marketing and my new-patient numbers grow with great-quality patients.

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How does your typical day start at the office?

I get to the office by 7:30 a.m.; I try to be the first person in, before the staff gets there by 7:45. I turn on the Keurig coffee machine and pick a nice music station from Spotify or SiriusXM. (It’s usually Lauren Daigle’s station, but we also might listen to KidsBop and The Blend throughout the day.) I then sit in my small, crowded office and meditate until someone knocks at my door for our morning meeting.

Morning huddle starts exactly at 7:45. We do not skip this important step of our day, no matter what. If I happen to be running late, then they’ll call me exactly at 7:45 so I can join over the phone. What we cover:

  • Yesterday: Production numbers, collection, total patients seen, how many new patients, number of patients reappointed, same-day service done, successes/mistakes, how everyone felt the day went, feedback from each team member, any reviews received from patients.

  • Today: Daily goal, scheduled production numbers, anticipated collections, number of new patients, total number of patients on the schedule, insurance information accuracy, etc.

  • Tomorrow: We glance at how close we are to our daily goal, and actions to be taken to reach it.
We cover all this in 10–15 minutes, max, and start seeing patients by 8:10 a.m.

What’s your favorite clinical work to perform?

I do comprehensive dentistry—pretty much everything—but I really enjoy doing nonsurgical root canals. I even wanted to specialize, but life took a different turn.

When I was an associate, the other doctors in the practice hated doing root canals. They used to refer them out, but once I joined the practice they started to put them on my schedule to keep the production in-house. That helped me get better. However, I do refer out some cases to endodontists. I know my limitations—I’m not a specialist and some cases can be very time-consuming.

Why do you like endo?

I don’t know! Maybe it was the easiest subject for me to really get when I was in dental school? I also believe it’s one of the only procedures—if not the only one—that gives patients instant relief. If you really think about it, a root canal done well has minimal if any postoperative pain, while an extraction might get you out of pain instantly but you have to deal with postop pain management. (Again, I’m only referring to nonsurgical endo.)

Also, it takes a lot patience and focus, but I feel like once you really love doing root canals, they’re not that boring at all. However, what I love more than performing the procedure itself is seeing the periodic postoperative radiograph follow-ups months and even years later: It feels good to see the nice healing!

My advice to new graduates is to not dismiss endo completely by saying they “hate it,” because honestly, one doesn’t really know what they truly love until they start practicing for a while. Stay open-minded and willing to learn!

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in dentistry?

The business part of dentistry takes a lot of work, and dental school doesn’t teach you enough to go on your own. To find the right team is a challenge.

Besides having a newborn baby, when I first started practicing, my main challenge was marketing: trying to get patients through the doors and making myself known in the community. I didn’t grow up or go to school in Arkansas, so I had no longstanding connections to the area, and I don’t do social media like Facebook or Instagram. So getting myself known was a challenge that affected my practice growth for the first couple of years. (This is my fourth year as a solo practitioner, so I’m still new to this!)

My other struggle was creating a stable team. It took a while to find people who would buy into my vision and are a good fit for the practice. I’ve learned that you should not allow a team member who’s a bad fit to stick around for too long, hoping they’ll magically change. I eventually accepted that it’s OK to have some turnaround. We dentists have very high expectations—that’s just who we are!—and I learned to give myself some grace and keep working to find staff members who’d be a good fit for the practice.

It sounds like you found some help with those challenges on Dentaltown’s online message boards.

In the midst of all the struggles and challenges of ownership, being a member of the Dentaltown community has been a blessing. I’m blown away if I hear dentists say they’ve have never heard of Dentaltown—what planet are y’all living on?

I spent a lot of time on Dentaltown during the process of opening the practice. I reached out to Dr. Howard Farran himself for help, and he kindly responded and sent me the dental office forms and reports he uses in his practice, which I customized to create my own.

I also followed a lot of threads on the message boards: start-ups versus practice acquisitions, practice management, etc. I learned from other people’s mistakes and the plentiful advice shared by seasoned dentists. And when I’m looking for something new to try—a good matrix system, for example—I always turn to Dentaltown.

The Dentaltown app is always my go-to on my lunch breaks, because it’s so easy to surf and navigate through. I take all the CE for my license renewal from there, and usually purchase the entire series released after the Townie meetings.

What’s your favorite patient story?

One of my favorites involved a patient in her 30s with special needs. Her mother contacted us, desperate, because the patient wouldn’t allow dentists to work on her and they ended up getting dismissed from many practices. On their first visit, I was able to get the basics done—a cleaning and got her out of pain, which to her parents was a miracle. I even did the hygiene on her myself because she wouldn’t allow anyone else to do so.

One day, the parent called the office and left a voicemail, asking for me to call back. It turned out she wanted me to talk to the patient about going to a medical appointment; the daughter was being reluctant, but the mom said, “She listens to you.” I’d known them for maybe six months! I felt humbled and happy to help.

There’s a huge need for dentists who are willing to see patients who have special needs and are 12 and older. Parents and caregivers are desperate for help.

How has COVID affected your practice?

It’s added a level of struggle for all of us, for sure. We’re seeing a lot more last-minute cancellations, but we can’t charge patients a cancellation fee if they just discovered they have COVID. We also had some patients move out of state to survive the pandemic, and a few lost their jobs (and insurance coverage).

I’m still trying to figure out how to—or whether I can—compensate for the high costs of PPE supplies. Insurance will pay only what insurance will pay and nothing more, so increasing office fees is not the solution; I learned that the hard way. Adding PPE fees to each appointment is tough, too. Do you charge for every appointment? If you’re seeing a denture patient who has multiple try-ins and visits, should you charge once per patient, or once per visit?

On a happier note, you’re currently opening an orphanage in Togo.

Technically, this will be the second orphanage I’ve helped found. I’ve already served on the board of a few nonprofits that were created to benefit the people of Togo; one helps bring clean water to villages and the other built an orphanage. In the same spirit, I’m working with my family to build another orphanage to serve more children. Its name, La Foi, is French for “faith.”

The buildings at La Foi include 1,600-square-foot dormitories for boys and girls, a kitchen, a food warehouse and a pergola that’s an outdoor eating space and can be used as study space. The facility also includes a secure seven acres to be used for farming or any future projects, and plenty of playground space. The location is perfect, because it’s a two-minute walk to public school and 10 minutes to a nearby Catholic missionary compound, so kids can get to school easily.

We’re working on getting a well dug, but hit a snag and are working on the best solution to get drinking water available there, knowing that it costs $15,000 to drill a well. The final step after clean water will be building a wall around the homes.

We’re about $30,000 away from finishing the project, which I’m hoping to raise before the summer’s end so we can begin hosting children who are waiting for a good, safe home. [Editor’s note: For more information about the project, email Agbabli.]

Tell us more about your life outside the practice.

I spend my free time with my small family. I practice yoga and Pilates and do some strength-training exercises; I love to lift weights to clear my mind. I’m also working on the manuscript for an upcoming book, and I’m always planning things for the orphanage. So much to do in only 24 hours!

I also spend 10–20 minutes a day on Dentaltown and LinkedIn, to catch up on some great cases that get shared by other dentists and the jokes that Howard posts.

Listen to Dr. Ami Agbabli on Dentistry Uncensored

In their Dentistry Uncensored with Howard Farran podcast, Dentaltown’s founder and Dr. Ami Agbabli discuss charitable efforts, private practice ownership and much more. To watch or stream their session, click here.

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