Business Advise

The Bonding Dentists Project

Learn about The Bonding Dentists Project led by Dr. Jolene Lai. Explore its mission, impact, and innovative approaches to community dental care.

By Dr. Jolene Lai

Many have asked me why I started the Bonding Dentists project. I have always found joy in connecting people with opportunities, helping them find the right fit and providing solutions to ongoing problems.

It all started when I was interviewing candidates at the end of 2022 to fill the third dental associate position at my clinic. I knew the second candidate was the perfect fit for our team, but I still had eight other candidates to interview. Knowing that I did not want to waste anybody’s time, I passed on their resumes to fellow clinic owners who were also searching for associates. The demand for resumes from my friends grew, and I felt the need to continue searching for more candidates for them.

Being a moderator in various Malaysian dental Facebook groups, it was easier for me to reach out to job-seeking dentists and connect them with clinic owners who were looking to hire.

A decade ago, job ads for dental associate positions were hilariously simpler compared to your average job ad that listed lengthy job scopes and required experiences. Compare that to “Associate dentist vacancy. Call 019-2xxxxxx.” That’s it!

Fast forward to 2023, as an industry, we typically do not utilize job search portals. Instead, we rely on word of mouth and social media. Some young dentists take the initiative to walk into clinics of their choice to inquire about vacancies. It is almost unheard of for a headhunter to call an experienced dentist and offer them a position with better pay at another clinic.

The Bonding Dentists project receives resumes from dentists seeking associate positions and sends them to clinic owners who are also seeking associates. An associate seeking a position fills out a Google form detailing their preferred working locations, type of employment, years of experience, areas of interest, as well as names of clinics they do not want their resumes sent to. A dental clinic owner also fills out a form stating the kind of employment they are looking for, such as a permanent associate, a permanent locum, a temporary locum, or a visiting specialist.

After running the Bonding Dentists project for the last nine months, it has provided interesting insights into the job landscape among Malaysian dentists. It would not come as a surprise that the states with the highest number of job seekers would be Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Selangor. The states with the most clinics seeking associates seem to be Johor and Sabah. At least in Johor, there are still plenty of resumes to go around, but in Sabah, there are almost none.

A Sustainable Remuneration

The word on the ground is that it is okay to offer a lower pay than before due to the oversupply of dentists. However, I don’t believe so. The rate of the basic salary can vary because a healthy commission of 40% can allow an associate to earn above their basic salary, especially if they put effort into building their patient pool and upskilling themselves. Many clinic owners may argue that a rate of 40% is too high and 30-35% would suffice.

There are some clinics that only offer a basic salary, which includes EPF, SOCSO, and annual leave, rendering the dentist as an employee instead of an independent contractor. To create sustainable remuneration for your associates, it is important to provide a respectable amount that will allow them to pursue additional courses and expand their skillset. Realistically, a basic and/or commission-based income would give associates a sense of purpose and fulfillment in their career. The market rate for a basic salary was said to be six months before the associate goes on full commission. If the associate is lucky, the clinic may provide a basic salary for a year or indefinitely on a commission-based salary.

Associates will come and go, just like you did once upon a time. Most of us go through dental school knowing that we might open our own clinic one day. Give your associates your blessings if they choose that path after spending a portion of their career with you.

Becoming an Associate Dentist

In the Bonding Dentists Project Google forms, associates are asked to list the kind of clinic environment they are looking for. More than half of the associate applicants have zero to one year of experience in private practice. Many of them are looking for mentorship and guidance from senior dentists. Dental school and one year of government service do not fully prepare a young dentist for private practice. However, a young associate could be more flexible in their expectations of joining a clinic equipped with the latest technology and the best materials.

A solid basic clinical foundation makes a young dentist extremely versatile in any situation they may face. Experience counts more than having top-of-the-range composites or a digital dentistry workflow.

A few applicants have stated a preference for clinics with high patient flow. When you have been in private practice long enough, you will realize that there will be busy and quiet periods. Dentistry is a relationship-based business. We build connections with our patients who entrust us with their dental needs, especially when those needs are anxiety-riddled. Trust and empathy go a long way, and these qualities convert a patient into a lifelong patient.

There is only so much a clinic owner can do to direct patients to their associates. New patients, simple hygiene or restorative work passed on from the clinic owner’s regular patients or emergency walk-in patients may help fill up the associate’s schedule to some extent. Networking within your own communities plays a huge role in your career as a dentist. Carry your name card around so that people you meet in your everyday life will remember you when they need a dentist.

If being on social media is something you are comfortable with, it can be an invaluable platform to let people know what you are capable of. You can showcase your work, create educational content, and for some, share funny reels about your life as a dentist. It is also a form of camaraderie, and your potential patients will start to gain trust in you.

Being Put in Charge

Becoming a person in charge (PIC) does not seem to be most applicants’ cup of tea. Big dental chains or clinics that have multiple branches frequently employ young dentists to run solo clinics. However, without much clinical experience in the private setting, most PICs would still prefer having a senior colleague to consult with on their clinical decisions.

A PIC role would be better suited for someone who has had a few years of experience in private practice. PICs are usually hired for newly set up dental branches. It takes time to build a practice, and oftentimes the revenue takes longer than expected for the clinic to break even. A dental group may not feel the pinch as much, but a clinic owner with a second branch may feel stretched thin due to the increased overhead of supporting another clinic.

It takes a sense of ownership to truly grow a clinic. Therefore, offering a partnership setup would allow the PIC to have a strong sense of belonging and commitment to growing the clinic. It is definitely not a lucrative endeavor to have another person run a clinic for you without any financial commitment. Given the expenses that a dental clinic incurs, including the PIC’s salary, it might not be worthwhile to have multiple branches if you don’t grow the clinic yourself.

If the newly set up clinic is unable to grow, it creates wastage in the form of yet another space turned into a dental clinic, wasted early years of a young dentist’s career, and of course, your own or your investors’ finances. The business of dentistry is based on dentist-patient relationships and it is hard to teach and replicate soft skills. The business of dentistry should not be about price wars and tacky promotions. Instead of creating a multi-clinic empire, a stronger focus on vertical expansion may be the answer to young dentists being able to gain more confidence clinically, shared resources, and better facilities for better treatment planning.

A Thriving Community

It is my hope that Bonding Dentists can serve as a valuable platform for connecting dentists seeking associate positions with clinic owners in need of associates. As we move forward, let us remember the significance of mentorship, sustainable remuneration, and the continuous pursuit of knowledge, which are so important for young associates. Being proactive, flexible, and having an insatiable appetite for learning are strong qualities in associates that clinic owners would definitely appreciate.

By understanding this, we can create a thriving dental community that would benefit everyone. A stronger and more bonded community would elevate the standard of dentistry for the entire nation.

Dr. Jolene Lai is the founder of Pink and White Dental in Johor Bahru. Graduated from the first batch of AIMST Dentistry in 2010, she has enjoyed building her career in all aspects of general dentistry. She has a passion for building communities and connecting people. Her strength and weakness are both the inability to stop doing a million and one things, all at the same time.

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