Know Thy Practice

By Matthew Cook, M.S., C.I.S.S.P.


In the vestibule of the Oracle of Delphi was inscribed the imperative, “Know Thyself.” This ancient inscription can have a surprising impact on managing a profitable and fulfilling dental practice.

How can you come to know your practice? The answer is to know your processes. First, understand the processes of a patient’s visit. Second, improve those processes by promoting a proactive instead of a reactive stance. Finally, remember that the best improvement is continual improvement. Use these three concepts to build the framework and then apply two simple tools to help you know your practice.

Gather Your Data

Too often, dentists use industry averages to govern operational procedures in their own practices. But industry averages do not account for dynamics unique to your practice, and using these averages can create an experience that the patient can get from virtually any dentist. To know your practice, start by gathering data on your practice’s unique nature. What are the demographics of your patients? What procedures do you perform the most? What is the wait time in your lobby? How much time does it really take to perform each procedure and attain the desired level of quality? The answers to these and other questions should be recorded on a daily basis.

You can most effectively gather this data by selecting a particular aspect of your operation, determining what can be measured, and keeping a record. Once you establish a baseline, you can test a new process. Because you are actively recording, you can measure the true effectiveness of a given process and can assess and correct it. If you consistently gather your own data, your practice will automatically be different from dentists always searching for new management techniques. You will have implemented and improved the right techniques.

Empower Your Staff

The chief complaint of most dental office staff members is that their ideas are never considered. If this attitude prevails in your office, you are cut off from an important source of information. Replace ineffective staff meetings with forums that encourage open and constructive discussions of what is working and what is not. Poor processes are often the result of a single point of view. Some of the most chaotic dental offices are the result of a dentist who is constantly changing operational procedures without input from the staff. Those charged with making the practice function on a daily basis can provide you the best feedback on improving your processes.

Getting started is easier than you think. Simply pick an aspect of the practice that you’d like to improve and involve the staff. Once you identify a plausible course of action, implement it. The staff will feel empowered and their willingness to aid in the creation and refinement of these processes will become a powerful force in the practice.

As a dental technology consultant, I have observed dental practices that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. I found that most successful practices are alike, while every unsuccessful practice is unsuccessful in its own special way. Successful practices build upon processes that have been tested and refined. Practices that fail to develop effective processes find themselves constantly trying different things and end up falling short without ever really knowing why.

Much like the journey of self-knowledge, knowledge of your practice is less a function of what you teach yourself than of what you let yourself learn from others.


Matthew Cook has been a dental technology consultant for over five years. In 2004 he joined Arrowhead Dental Laboratory as head of their IT Department.