Non-dentist practice owners

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non-dentist practice owners
Penny Richards (centre) and the Waterways Dental team.

While talk about who should be able to own a dental practice have revolved around corporates and individual practitioners, there are other oral health professionals who have succeeded in practice ownership. By Tracey Porter

Penny Richards doesn’t claim to have all the answers as to what makes for effective dental practice management.

But what the oral health therapist is certain of is that there is no room for ego and even less space for those who believe they have nothing to learn.

These are but two of the many lessons Richards, also a qualified myofunctional therapist, has learnt since joining the ranks of non-dentists who have chosen to own a dental practice.

While dentist-run-and-owned surgeries across Australia remain a dominant force, the number of non-dentists stepping up to take on the challenge of practice ownership is increasing—particularly so in the 13 years since the industry was first deregulated.

Early lessons

Like many who have gone before her, Richards started her career at age 21 while working as a dental assistant on the Gold Coast. She then raised two children while obtaining a graduate certificate in oral health science from Adelaide University and a Bachelor of Oral Health Therapy from Griffith University. 

Richards, who has a special interest in addressing mouth breathing, sleep-disordered breathing, and poor myofunctional habits which can lead to crooked teeth, limited jaw development, and other concerns, says it was while working as an entry-level assistant that she received her first meaningful lesson in the dangers of elitism within the oral healthcare sector. 

“[Being in that role] taught me to have empathy and compassion for support staff. I know how busy they are; they work so hard, usually also juggling kids themselves. Back then I realised that unfortunately, a lot of dental practitioners did not treat the support staff as equals and sometimes without any respect at all.”

In February 2021, Richards and her husband David made the bold decision to take over Waterways Dental, the longest-serving family dental practice in Queenland’s Mermaid Waters.

I have encountered many large egos in dentistry over the 29 years of my career. I do not tolerate arrogance well. As a female business owner and an OHT, I like to set an even playing field and set clear expectations from the outset.

Penny Richards, owner, Waterways Dental

At the time, it was a “tired, old, paper-based” two-chair practice, with just one dentist and one OHT, she says.

Since taking over the reins, the business has gone from strength to strength.

During the time she has occupied the big chair, Richards has fully renovated the practice and made it completely digital. In July, she completed a major renovation, launching a sister hygiene clinic that also has a cosmetic beauty studio and employing a full-time registered nurse offering beauty services.

Together with the physical and administrative changes, staff resourcing has also flourished with Richards ensuring the Waterways Dental team is now operating at peak efficiency with three dentists and seven support staff.

Ground rules matter

Richards believes there are as many challenges as there are opportunities for non-dentists who step up to become principals of their practice. However, it works best when dental practice owners can focus on what they do best.

Key to this is ensuring fair and consistent ground rules are established from the start, she says.

“I have encountered many large egos in dentistry over the 29 years of my career. I do not tolerate arrogance well. As a female business owner and an OHT, I like to set an even playing field and set clear expectations from the outset.”

Richards says as a clinic owner, she gets a particular joy from working with dentists who enjoy collaborating with their colleagues and see merit in the input their colleagues can offer.

She says this works best when those who come from a different specialty area realise that no professional meets with success in a vacuum. The good ones also acknowledge that not every clinician can service every patient or clinical outcome and that for the practice to work efficiently, all sectors need to work as a team.

Don’t micromanage or stop your staff from working their magic. Be mindful that every person has strengths and weaknesses, so be sure to focus on the areas that they enjoy and can perform well in.

Penny Richards, owner, Waterways Dental

Richards says unlike many in the industry, her clinic is fortunate not to have been too severely impacted by the health and resourcing challenges of COVID in recent years. However, when issues have arisen, she has sought to be open and transparent about her decision-making process and encouraged her staff to act similarly.

To this end, she says her team has been particularly accommodating. 

“I have two administration wizards working from home a day a week each, and every staff member works four days instead of five to maintain a happy work-life balance. I have an open-door policy when it comes to feedback and suggestions for improvement to ensure every person is supported and heard,” she says.

Worst-case scenarios

Richards says one of the worst things non-dentists can do when seeking to take on ownership of a dental practice is to forget what they are there to do.

Making the mistake of believing that they have all the answers, not listening and getting an over inflated sense of self are common errors, she says.  

“Remember that healthcare and quality dentistry are more important than the dollar. I think a lot of practices lose sight of this.” 

Regardless of whether they are non-dentists or dentists, all practice owners should always look to upskill in any areas that need improvement if they wish to maintain their level of service to clients.

It’s also important to take loads of professional advice from people who have walked the path before you, Richards says. 

“Don’t micromanage or stop your staff from working their magic. Be mindful that every person has strengths and weaknesses, so be sure to focus on the areas that they enjoy and can perform well in.” 

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