Good news! There is life after the Army.
Two years ago I left active duty after 5 years as a general dentist in the US Army Dental Corps. Since then I have been in private practice in Columbia, South Carolina. One year as an associate, and since January of 2015, the owner of Brickyard Dental Group. The last two years have been two of the most enlightening and enriching years of my life. And two of the most challenging.
Recently I have spent a little time thinking back on my time in uniform – and about how different things are now. Both in my personal and professional life. There are so many aspects of my new job as the owner of a group dental practice that terrified me as I was transitioning out of the military. So many things that I feared made me want to stay in the Army where things were safe and predictable.
But I’m glad I did not stay in the Army.
For those who aren’t familiar with the military…the Army Dental Corps is a peculiar environment in which a dentist enters, usually right out of school, and signs up to work for a specific period of military service. This is almost always in exchange for some form of scholarship or loan repayment. It is not like the civilian world where one can essentially quit a job at any time or feel free to take a new job at any time. The Army requires you sign contracts that keep you locked in – usually for 3-5 years at a time. This creates a labor force in which the senior workers in the organization have, over a course of 20 plus years, had to make multiple decisions stay in the service instead of leaving to practice in a non-military community. Therefore the senior leaders are the ones who have consistently made the decision to stay inside military dentistry.
I would argue that for the most part, no young dentist comes into the Army with the thought that “I want to be an Army Dentist forever.” That just is not the case. Most young dentists come into the Army out of obligation. And their goal is to serve their time and then leave and enter the civilian workforce. Some do their time and get out. Some stick around and get specialty training. But only a handful stick around for 20 years — the earliest one can officially “retire” from the military.
But that creates a unique mentorship environment. On one hand, you have young dentists who have no private practice experience (or any experience for that matter) who aspire to become civilian dentists. And on the other hand you have senior dentists — the only dentists these young dentists are mentored by — who have never been in private practice.
As a former young Army dentist, I cannot tell you how many times I heard the following from senior Army dentists about the “world of private practice:”
- “You have to “sell” dentistry, and I don’t want to do that…”
- “You have to deal with insurance companies, and I don’t want to do that…
- “You’re going to have to see twice as many patients to make any kind of living, and I don’t want to do that…
- “You’re going to have to take on a ton of debt. And I don’t want to do that…
- “You’re going to have to work hard if you want to survive. And I don’t want to do that…”
- “That Army retirement is sooooo good. I don’t have to save my own money”
I can tell you that they are right!
Pretty much all of the statements they made are true. But what I have learned is that there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, these realities make private practice that much more amazing.
Yes, I have to sell dentistry. But only if selling is informing a patient of my findings and then having a conversation about what their options are. That’s as far as my “sales pitch” goes.
Yes, I have to deal with insurance companies. My office is privileged to act as a mediator on behalf of my patients to help them get the benefits they deserve. Insurance companies do not dictate care in my practice. And my amazing staff handles the majority of this.
Yes, I have to see more patients. But that is not because I’m trying to make ends meet or make a little more money. It is because my services and those of my team are in demand. In fact, In many ways I see fewer patient than when I was in the Army. And I definitely work fewer days per week. I still only work out of one chair and I do not double book patients. That is out of respect for my patients. (I also see more patients because I don’t block off 90 minutes to do a 4 surface amalgam anymore.) I am blessed and thankful to be so busy.
Yes, I had to take on debt. I bought a business. That business provides income for me and my staff. I cant think of a better kind of debt to take on.
Yes, I have to work harder. I have a lot more responsibilities than I ever had in the Army. But with hard work comes significant reward. It is more true than I imagined.
The only one I disagree with is the retirement piece. The Army retirement is good. But its not as great as some make it out to be. That said, I’d still rather assume the responsibility of saving my own money. Yeah, it takes discipline. But at least congress cant take it away from me. More importantly, if I die young my surviving family members get to keep the entirety of what was saved. Not so for military retirees.
All that said, I love where I am in life now. I love leading a team of three dentists and an amazing staff. I love my patients. I love being able to provide the type of dentistry that I believe is right for the patient. And I love doing the dentistry that I want to do, not the dentistry I am told to do.
I wake up every morning excited to go to work! I thank God every day for my staff, my patients, my practice, and all the blessings He has provided. And yes, I pray that out loud in my morning staff meeting. (I am allowed to do that. I own the business and the building now, remember?)
My time in uniform was an important stage in my life. As the author John Eldredge would argue, it was the Warrior Phase in my life that I needed to pass through before I could become King. I have no regrets. I am glad that I served as an Army Dentist. And I am glad that I got out when I did.
More practically, I am thankful that I went to dental school on an HPSP scholarship. I would not be in the practice that I am had I not had zero student debt and 5 years of clinical experience under my belt. I have the Army to thank for that. I strongly encourage those who are up to the challenge to consider the HPSP. And I would encourage those in dental school and young military dentists who think they want to own a practice to get a few years of experience before they jump in to owning a business.
I still get emails from dental students, young Army dentists, (and the occasional irate senior Army dentist.) I think this will be my last blog post on armydentistry.com, but I would still encourage those who want to contact me to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.