Retiring Can Be Tiring! by Dr. David Hirshfield

Retiring Can Be Tiring!

This Townie’s top takeaways can help better prepare you for what lies ahead


by Dr. David Hirshfield


If you think retirement from dental practice is just a matter of selling your practice and moving on, I learned the hard way it is not! Among the steps and challenges I encountered during my 4½-year journey to retirement:
  • Our son’s cancer diagnosis (and successful recovery).
  • Then hiring a consultant to try to build my practice.
  • Having key employees take three extended leaves of absence.
  • The loss and replacement of one assistant and two hygienists.
  • After being miserable for two years, realizing it was time to retire.
  • Finding out I couldn’t lease my practice space to a dentist successor, and the only way I could sell to another dentist at my location would be to build out another space in the building.
  • Deciding during the COVID-19 shutdown that I would not do the buildout.
  • Finding a practice to merge with.
  • Negotiating a deal in the middle of the pandemic.
  • Keeping this all confidential from staff and patients.
  • Revealing my plans to staff and patients all in one day.
  • Working with my current staff at a new practice.
  • Dealing with several glitches in closing my old office.
  • After one year of working as a non-owner dentist, finally being able to retire.
It goes without saying that this is no straight-line path. Never taking my eyes off the finish line was key to overcoming all of the hurdles that sprang up, and as my journey progressed, I paid attention to the lessons I learned along the way that helped me ultimately reach my goal. I’m sharing a dozen or so here with you, in hopes that this knowledge can help smooth your own path when you decide it’s time to retire too.


Be proactive.
In retrospect, the 1½ years I put into my retirement plan felt like a rush job. Start thinking about practice transition at least five years before you think you’ll want to retire—or at least when the first numeral of your age turns over to a 6.


Begin with the end in mind.
Start by visualizing your desired final result and deciding what’s really important to you, without worrying about how you’re going to get there. When I decided to sell my practice, my two goals were continuity of care for my patients and continuity of employment for my staff, but I had no idea about how I might be able to achieve them. (I did, but in a way I never would have imagined, which leads me to. …)


Expect the unexpected.
Goal achievement can be a winding, rocky road with plenty of dead ends, and your GPS may not always be accurate on this journey. It’s OK to be occasionally frustrated, but quickly let a cooler head prevail and keep going. Your intuition will generally tell you if you’re on the right track.


Think win/win.
I wanted to make sure all parties involved in and affected by my plan—staff, patients, purchaser and I—would be treated fairly. Because I kept this top of mind during the transition process, I felt great peace of mind moving on, with no loose ends to think about.


Consider the transition a team sport.

I learned the hard way, over time, that my expertise lies in dentistry only and to be successful, I would need excellent professionals on my side. Without the able assistance of my attorney, accountants, financial planner and practice consultant, I don’t believe I could have achieved the same results during my practice transition.


Worry just about the next step.
At first, I thought I needed to have all of the steps toward retirement mapped out in advance, like a patient treatment plan. But while I knew what to do when a dental procedure goes awry, I’d never gone through a practice transition, so what would I fall back on if one particular step didn’t go according to plan? (We know how often that happens in dentistry!) In the end, I found it best to let the professionals on my team handle the multiple-step-level planning; for me, focusing on just one step at a time worked and kept me focused.


You’ve got to say goodbye to your practice.
Most of us send our children off after high school so they can make a living as independent adults. You miss them and still love them but know it’s the right thing to do. Now it’s time to let your practice go, too, so it can blossom and grow; there’s nothing more you can do with it. I have to admit that after closing, it was hard to watch my physical office being torn apart, but in the end, I had no regrets.


You’ve also got to say goodbye to your patients.
The doctor/patient relationship is the foundation of ethical care, but I had to face reality: My patients didn’t think about me all that much—probably as much as I think about my car mechanic. He reminds me to schedule oil changes (the automotive equivalent of prophies) and while I can’t think of anything but him when my car breaks down (toothaches), the rest of the time, I don’t think about him at all. My patients may have liked me, but I had to realize I didn’t occupy their thoughts much. While I certainly miss them and they may occasionally miss me, keeping the dental/auto care analogy in mind made it much easier to let go.


Confirm the big decision.
For further assurance that retirement was the right move, I went through the exercises in Alan Roadburg’s self-help guide Life After Dentistry. This was the turning point at which I realized I could and eventually should retire; not long before, I had thought I’d practice until age 75. (It took some time, though, for me to come to terms that I was ready at 65.)

Keep practicing only if you love all aspects of what you do. If you’re financially able to retire, don’t continue working as a dentist just because you can’t think of anything better to do! I had always believed that practicing dentistry was what I was supposed to do and retirement would somehow be abandoning my core values, so to test my decision to retire, every day I worked at the group that bought me out, I asked myself: “Will I miss this daily routine when I’m done?” The answer was always no, which reassured me I had made the right decision.


Don’t retire from, retire to.
Sure, some of the negatives of dental practice—my wife and I no longer wanted to run a business, and my lumbar muscles were pretty well spent—helped nudge me toward retirement, but I never stopped focusing on the positives that had gratified me for 40-plus years. And once you do retire, you get to replace those positives with other gratifying activities. (The list of “other things” to do in this world is limited only by your imagination.) Though I am very recently retired, I can already see the significance of this concept.


Don’t deny when it’s time.
You don’t have to sink into the abyss of misery to figure things out. For too long, I refused to believe I could be ready to retire because I couldn’t get that “hardworking dentist” identity out of my head. I paid too high a price for that, and now I’m sorry I didn’t take action sooner!


There are no free lunches.
You don’t just get the money at closing and walk off into the sunset; there’s always a price to pay. For me, loss of practice autonomy was that price, because I had always loved being able to call all the shots in my office. The good news is, I replaced it with something even better: the ability to live my whole life on my own terms, something that I now realize is priceless.

Download the author’s full story for free!

Dr. David Hirshfield has written a 42-page story that recounts his practice transition experience in
greater detail than we could do here. To download the PDF for free, click here.



Author Bio
John Wilde Dr. David Hirshfield earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Clark University, then attended the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. After a general practice residence at Boston City Hospital, Hirshfield worked as an associate dentist for several years, then opened his own private practice in Medfield, Massachussetts. He is a past president of the Norfolk County Dental Society and a master of the Academy of General Dentistry. On Dec. 31, 2020, Hirshfield sold and merged his solo practice. He continued to work for the group that bought him out for one year before finally retiring. Email: docdaveh@gmail.com

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