Dr. Anthony Nguyen of Los Angeles, California only completed his dental training five years ago, but he's already made a name for himself both online and in his local community.
Since his graduation, he's split his time as an associate in a dental implants practice and as a faculty member working with dental students at his alma mater UCLA. Dr. Nguyen has even managed to amass an impressive following under his Instagram handle Dr. Save-a-Tooth – a nickname he earned early in his career thanks to the “heroic lengths” he goes to save patients' teeth.
Dr. Nguyen was the focus of a recent case study exploring how the then-aspiring practice owner was utilizing his Spear membership to build clinical and leadership confidence. Now that Dr. Nguyen has officially opened the doors of his California practice, we caught up with him to find out how his journey is going so far – and where he plans to go next.
You've recently begun using your Instagram profile to document your journey as a new dental practice owner. Why have you chosen to tell this story through social media?
Dr. Nguyen: “A lot of my colleagues and friends that are around my age – young dentists – want to branch out on their own, too. I think it's the timing. Five years out [of dental school] or so you start thinking about this stuff, and I guess I'm one of the first [among my friends and colleagues] to do it. A lot of people asked me about it, so I figured I'd just spill the beans!”
You mention in one of your posts that the decision to start a dental practice was made only after a fruitless search for a practice to buy. What was that experience like, and why did it lead you to where you are today?
Dr. Nguyen: “I have lived [in my area] for three years and I was practicing at a DSO. Then I moved down here and worked for a couple of offices before deciding to buy into one. And I looked at plenty of opportunities for buying into or associating with a practice and making the effort to transition, but it just didn't work out. A couple of the dentists that I was associating with decided that they wanted to [stay on with the practice] longer and they weren't ready to give up full control.”
“I kept looking for other options, and while I was looking with brokers, the offices that we were looking for buyers didn't fit what I wanted to do, and if I liked something or if I thought the situation was good, I would want to turn everything upside down. The aesthetics weren't what I wanted, or the staff was more traditional so I knew it would be a harder transition. At the end of the day I said, "It's not going work out." So, I just did my own thing. A lot of other doctors thought I was crazy [laughs].”
What made you forge ahead anyway, despite reservations from your peers?
Dr. Nguyen: “If I were to buy into a practice I would have automatic cash flow, so that's nice. I already saved up, so I felt like I would be stable even if I didn't have any cash flow. For me, I always like to tinker with stuff and customize things – like with my car or my instruments, or something like a laptop. I want to put a sticker or something to make it my own! So, when I was associating at these practices, I would want to do certain things or adjust the aesthetics a certain way. At the end of the day, it wasn't my aesthetic.”
“I looked into a couple of practices, and I was trying to see where my break-even point was. Let's say I'd built a practice and it wasn't successful – if I sold the practice, I'd break even anyway. I thought, "Well, I might as well just do it." The success rate is pretty high and the default rate for a dentist is less than 1 percent, so my thought was that statistically, I shouldn't fail."
So, it was certainly a decision you approach analytically, and that you calculated all the risks.
Dr. Nguyen: “I think you could think a little bit, but you can't see all the risks involved. I knew my population and I knew my ideal patient. My ideal patient was me – somebody young who had dental insurance and wouldn't mind blowing $200 to $300 for a crown after copay and not complain about it. I knew my demographic – I grew up in the area and I saw that the dentists around here weren't attuned to that kind of clientele, and so I just did my own thing.”
You attended one of our half-day practice management seminars prior to opening your practice. Can you tell me about that experience and how it helped you prepare?
Dr. Nguyen: “The Leading Your Business by the Numbers seminar gave me an idea of the business management side of things like cash flow, how to look at your break-even, how to look at ordering supplies – stuff like that. It just gave me an idea of the actual business side of dentistry that a lot of times you don't look at or just have a basic introduction, so it's helped me see the little details that I might have missed before. I still have a lot to learn, though.”
What comes next for you? In what areas do you believe you'll need to develop?
Dr. Nguyen: “Well, first, I understood my break-even – and we broke even our first month, which was pretty crazy. This my second month on our second or third week and we already broke even this month, so everything is looking good. So, the next thing to do is learn how to see where the gaps are in the schedule and how to make things more efficient. I think that's the next step.”
Tell me about the hiring process for the practice. How did you find your team?
Dr. Nguyen: “We're a skeleton team right now – I have two women full time and they cross-train both the front and back and they're able to rotate around, which is nice. I'm working on hiring another registered dental assistant, and I have another girl on standby. We've been friends since high school and we were from the area, so she helps a lot.”
“Hiring... that was very interesting [laughs]. A lot of my colleagues are saying they are having a hard time hiring people because there's not a lot of people that would take the job. For me, I've had a lot of applicants – in just the past two weeks I've had 14 applicants apply. Are they quality applicants? And the answer is no [laughs], but there are a lot of the applicants! I'm hiring for a high-end dental clinic where people feel like they're trusted and know what they're doing. So, hiring somebody that's straight out of school or someone that doesn't know anything is very difficult to brand if you're high-end.”
“That's the difficult part – I'm being picky now since I'm on my skeleton crew and they're awesome. I'm trying to find somebody that would help elevate the team versus having to train somebody to slowly pick back up.”
Outside of opening a practice, you are still actively engaged with Spear learning and even actively posting on Instagram about your experience. How do you find the balance to get it all done?
Dr. Nguyen: “When you're running your own practice, there isn't a lot of time to do stuff – it's just time management. One of my mentors told me, "You will always have something to do." It's just prioritizing at that point. You can do that another day; you don't have to do it all at once.”
“For me, I think it's just [about going] slowly. [Saying things like] 'I can pay this bill now and address this later' or 'this is not that big of a deal.' I can have the practice here and have my social life [at the same time].”
You've accomplished a lot in a short amount of time with your practice. What do the next few months look like for you? What are your priorities?
Dr. Nguyen: “I thought that [breaking even] was a realistic [mid-term] goal and we blew that out of the water. Right now, I'm riding this high for a little bit. [laughs] I guess I could be pushing harder and ramping up faster, but I'm trying to get my staff comfortable so that everything is more fluid and nobody's struggling, there are no gaps in processes, et cetera. ”
“I'm just feeling it out at this point and asking questions like, 'Is there something I'm missing? Could those x-rays or photos be better?' I'm nitpicking these little things because this is my core team, and they're going to be training the next assistants and staff coming in. I want them to be at 100 percent before adding more staff.”
It sounds like you're investing a great deal of time in team training to ensure they understand your vision. How are you creating that connection with the team? What does the day-to-day in the office look like?
Dr. Nguyen: “My team numbers are personable, which is the vibe in general. We have an open-door policy, so if there's a break we talk about things on a personal level. I also ask them specifically, 'what do you think can be done better to increase the efficiency or increase the patient experience?'”
“I am all about experience and making sure everything is streamlined and every patient is feeling comfortable. Just giving them Fiji water in the very beginning [makes a difference]. It's just a vibe. We have a regular 'vibe chat' to make sure that everyone is on board, having a good time and understands what the ideal patient experience is supposed to be like.”
Read more about how Dr. Anthony Nguyen has used his Spear membership to gain the clinical confidence and leadership skills in his recent case study.
Karen Hewell is the managing editor of Spear Digest.