About 2 months into my dental associateship, I realized that not only were most of the patients shocked I was a female dentist, but they also weren’t very excited about it. When I planned treatment for larger cases, a large percentage would accept treatment but want my boss to do it. During extractions, if it had been longer than 45 minutes and the tooth wasn’t out yet, several patients were convinced I didn’t know what I was doing and hadn’t done it before. A few of the patients that didn’t accept treatment said things like, “Shouldn’t I see the other doctor so he can confirm?”
I Moved Across the Country
After my AEGD residency, we moved to Seattle to pursue a great opportunity for my husband. My interviews for associateships were all over the phone or via skype, and I was a bit nervous not understanding the layout of Seattle, traffic patterns, demographics of areas, etc. I scheduled a few in-office interviews for Memorial Day weekend, the same weekend we were scheduled to look for a place to live. Excited about the opportunities presented by a particular dental office, I accepted an associateship position that I thought could be a long-lasting home. The staff was amazing, and I really believed I could add something different as a female dentist to grow their patient base.
My associateship started in July 2014. I was welcomed with a personalized Seahawks jersey, lots of fanfare from the employees…and an empty schedule. The schedule didn’t make me nervous; in fact, it made me excited to meet new patients. “Challenge accepted!” I thought. I saw about five new patients my first month and 5-10 the second month. I also met many patients through the jam-packed recall program. After long, I expected to hear what had become a familiar patient phrase, “You’re like the female Doogie Howser! Are you even old enough to be a dentist?” It didn’t take long for me to get comfortable quipping back with my light-hearted response and moving forward with my day.
A Dental Office Website is a Great Way to Introduce a New Dentist
Before my associateship began, the existing patients were informed that I was coming with a written, mailed letter. In a world where most communication has moved online, I knew some of them read the letter, but not all. I also knew that the website was the first place new patients would explore before their first visit. I asked when I would be featured on the new website with my photo, but my boss said the website was under a huge overhaul and wouldn’t be ready until December at the earliest. He made it clear that it was my job to get patients to like and trust me, not his.
Six Months Into My Associateship my confidence had plummeted. My schedule was mostly empty, and I wasn’t establishing a foothold into the practice, let alone helping to grow it. I would come home and vent to my husband that I must not be confident enough, fast enough, trustworthy enough, good enough, etc. The website still wasn’t ready, and I continued to meet very kind patients that simply preferred a male dentist to a female dentist for their care. I decided to start having monthly meetings with my boss (since our schedules did not overlap), and I helped give input to every page of the website, hoping that would speed things along. It was then I realized I had very little control as an associate. Ultimately every decision was his (understandably).
In May of 2015, I took my first week of vacation to decompress. My husband, who graduated with his MBA, brought up the idea of me owning my own practice. With my confidence lowered from the past year, I told him there was no way I could be successful. “I don’t know how to develop a good rapport with patients, the patients don’t trust me, I’m not fast enough, I’m not good enough”. Thoughts that many female (and male) dentists I’ve spoken to have had at some point in their career. My family reminded me that as a practice owner the buck stopped with me, but I also would have the power to make changes when things weren’t working. I could choose the best labs in the area to work with, develop my own patient policies, develop my own employee policies, run my own marketing campaigns, design an office space to impress my desired patient and create my own website. Thus my journey to being a female, start-up dental practice owner began.
I moved quickly once I found a space. It would be a start-up office, but I was bursting with ideas and ready to implement everything. The first thing I worked on was my website. My husband and I created the website (on nights and weekends for free) using WordPress. My face – the face of a young female dentist – was going to be the first thing that a new patient would see when they opened our page. The website went live July 1st, and the office opened September 19th, 2015. We experienced growing pains like every startup office does, but the one constant since we opened is that the patients that come to my office are actually excited that I am a young, female dentist. The majority of my patients actively were looking for a female dentist. The patients who were not looking for a female dentist have still chosen me knowing I am a young female. I haven’t met a single patient that has commented on my age or sex. I was pregnant during the first year we were open, and every patient has been supportive with unwavering confidence in my abilities and management of their oral health. Since our opening, we have averaged 35 new patients every month.
My confidence as a woman in dentistry has been renewed. I was affected by my associateship so much, that I didn’t even realize when I first opened my practice that I was apologizing to patients for their broken, infected, or decayed teeth. We’ve been open for over two years now and I’m proud of how far we’ve come. I can confidently say that I’ve stopped apologizing during my treatment plans and that the patient phrase I hear most often is, “Dr. McCauley, do what you think is best. I trust you!”