Inside Dentistry
September 2008
Volume 4, Issue 8

To Be Successful, Be Principled

Dick Barnes, DDS

In business and the practice of dentistry there are indisputable principles that, when followed, lead to successful outcomes and the satisfaction that’s realized from a job well done. When interpersonal interaction is involved, those truths form the basis of universal principles that can enable challenges to be skillfully overcome with confidence and empathy.

To be successful in the practice of dentistry, it’s important to be principled. The techniques of dentistry change—and dentists need to change with them—but principles are principles, and they’re based upon a sound foundation of trying to do what’s right and what’s fair. Dental techniques change, but principles don’t.

So while change isn’t easy, and dentists are often bogged down with tradition, I have found that it can be comforting to know that the principles guiding positive changes within the practice don’t change. After all, they’re the cornerstones of human engineering and motivation, and they’re the same today as they were many years ago.

For example, when it comes to technology and new techniques, most dentists are late adopters, requiring a long adoption curve. The use of zirconia-based restorations is a case in point, as might be incorporating digital impressions, using digital radiography, or becoming skilled with CO2lasers to enable the delivery of more comfortable patient treatments. However, incorporating these innovations may enable clinicians to be successful and simultaneously remain principled. To deliver what’s best for your patients, you may need to be open to something new.

Sometimes that “something new” may be embracing the principle that every patient deserves comprehensive dentistry. Clinicians must make it a point to present comprehensive dentistry to every patient. His or her financial status shouldn’t determine the needs of the patient.

That being said, treatment plans should be developed that will provide patients with what they need, without regard for their pocketbook. Thinking comprehensively is what patients deserve, and anything less—such as trying to devise a way to cut costs—will only compromise the dentistry. It’s just not a principled way to practice.

With comprehensive dentistry, people’s lives change, and that’s what patients need to know. In fact, it’s important for dentists and their patients to understand more about the value of good, comprehensive dentistry. Dentists are used to selling hardware—four crowns here, a few units of scaling there—but they rarely discuss the value of treatment with their patients.

But such a conversation must take place with empathy. If a patient asks, “How long will it take?” to respond with empathy we say, “Is time a problem?” If you want to be understood, you have to understand. You have to be empathetic and aware of your patient’s needs. It all boils down to the principle of value.

Stated differently, expressing empathy for your patients is about understanding, not selling. It’s important to help patients through their financial difficulties or their difficulty in understanding why it’s so important to have comprehensive treatment. In other words, it’s about explaining why it’s valuable to them and in their best interest.

I realize this may be difficult for some clinicians, given the fact that over the years, I’ve found dentists to be reluctant to discuss values. That’s not a problem as far as doing dentistry, but sometimes it holds us back from believing in the true value of comprehensive dentistry because we have never been taught how.

The bottom line is that being successful requires learning people skills. The dentistry is the easy part. Interacting with people can sometimes become difficult, and a big part of the difficulty involves fees. Dentists have to get over the fear of discussing fees, because some patients do have really bad teeth and need the services and skills you can provide. The most difficult thing to achieve in dentistry is getting a patient to say “yes” to needed treatment. Therefore, dentists should learn how to develop high trust and low fear with their patients.

Granted, trust is earned. A principled dentist—and one who operates personally, professionally, and in business according to these universal principles—can earn a patient’s trust more easily when all aspects of what they do and how they do it complement each other and demonstrate that it’s people that matter most, even though they’re in business to make a profit. I think we all struggle in life to do what’s right and what’s fair. When we do our best and what’s right for the patient, it’s ok to make a profit.

But therein lays an important caveat. Be the best dentist you can be. Despite the development of clinical and professional skills, you still find yourself wanting to become better and better. It’s important to become dedicated to the pursuit of dental excellence and to seek out the expertise and knowledge of others. The more you learn about dentistry, the more you’ll realize what you don’t know.


I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting many dentists in diverse places throughout the world, and they’ve demonstrated for me that the prospect of achieving success is a simplified process. I’ve summarized here what I believe are some of the significant principles that I’ve taught over the years. Hopefully you’ll find them in-spiring and maybe worthy of some consideration. But above all, remember to be firm in principle and flexible in procedure. Your principles will guide you through whatever lies ahead, and your flexibility will enable you to handle whatever the future holds, which is something nobody knows for sure.

About the Author

Dick Barnes, DDS, is the founder and CEO of the Dr. Dick Barnes Group and Arrowhead Dental Laboratory. He is one of dentistry’s iconic practice development leaders. He has spent the better part of his career synthesizing the wisdom and experience he’s gathered in these areas into no-nonsense recommendations and teachings that have benefitted dentists around the world. Among the first dental leaders to focus attention on the business aspect of the dental practice, Dick has worked tirelessly to understand and develop an approach for achieving successful case acceptance that centers on universal, unchanging principles.


Start With Principles to Be Successful

  1. Be open to what's new out there
  2. Remember that every patient deserves comprehensive dentistry
  3. Teach your patients about the value of treatment, rather than sell them dentistry
  4. Remember that you're in your chosen profession to help people and making money while you're doing it is a side benefit
  5. Do what's needed, and do it well
About the Author
Dick Barnes, DDS
Founder and CEO
Dr. Dick Barnes Group and Arrowhead Dental Laboratory

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