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Connecticut State Dental Association

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Dentists are entrepreneurs without business training

Most Connecticut dentists operate solo practices, but the irony is few of them have much formal training running a business.

That's because dental schools traditionally haven't focused much of their curriculum on practice management.

The UConn School of Dental Medicine, for example, has a course that teaches students some basic management theories and how to write a business plan, but the focus is minimal.

"I'm not coming out knowing much about business," said Chelsea Murphy, who graduated from UConn's dental school in May. "It can be an issue if you are trying to run a practice."

A key selling point group practices are making when trying to recruit dentists is that they can provide the business acumen and back-office resources to improve efficiencies and profitability. The lack of business know-how by many dentists, particularly younger practitioners who are increasingly demanding a better work-life balance, could play into larger group practices hands, experts say.

Steven Lepowsky, UConn's senior associate dean for education and patient care, admits the school's practice management curriculum needs to be improved and strengthened. The reality is, he said, that no matter how much classroom work is prescribed to students, they don't get a true sense of what it takes to run a practice until they are actually doing it.

"Until you are living it day-to-day, some of it isn't real," Lepowsky said.

After graduation the majority of UConn students typically don't enter the field right away. Instead, they are encouraged to join a residency program to gain more experience. That's what Murphy did following her May graduation, when she started an orthodontics residency at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.

Murphy said she'd like to own a dental practice one day, but not by herself. She likes the idea of a collaborative office environment. She'd also like to hire someone to handle the business end of the practice, so she can focus her attention on treating patients.

For the first few years, however, Murphy said she'll probably work for a practice so she can gain experience and pay down student loan debt, which can be a significant roadblock for younger dentists looking to open their own shop.

In terms of industry consolidation, Lepowsky said there will be fewer solo dental practices in the future, but the trend likely won't be as widespread in Connecticut as it is in other parts of the country, particularly because of the state's population density.

"The majority of our graduates aren't going down that path," he said. "Most are still in a private practice or community setting, serving underserved populations."

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