My Journey to a 2,500 Patient Dental Career

In Building a Practice, My Story, She's an Entrepreneur by Joanne Block Rief

My Dental Career Story Started at Age 13

Who would have thought that, in 1973, when I was 13 years old, having my mother drop me off at my father’s dental practice after school would be the start of a lifelong dental career? My introduction to the profession was hand-dipping full mouth series of x-rays, letting them dry, and then mounting them in the cardboard holders. I would also stock the supplies in the operatories and call patients who were overdue for their re-care appointments.

Fast forward to 1978, when I was graduating from high school. My father asked me what I wanted to study in college. I thought for about 30 seconds and said, “Dental hygiene sounds good to me.” I was accepted into a four-year dental hygiene program at the University of Rhode Island. My father continually encouraged me to think about going to dental school after college; however, at that time, I did not know any female dentists. It was during my junior year of college that I heeded my father’s advice and decided to apply to dental school. It was not an easy decision because I would need to spend two summers taking chemistry and physics to be able to start dental school right after graduating from college. I went to the head of the dental hygiene program at URI to inform her that I would be missing class on a Friday. I explained that I was going to be applying to dental school and had an interview at the University of Maryland. We had a quiz every Friday, and because I was not there, I was given an F. The head of the program said to me, “You will get into dental school. Most dentists are stupid anyway.” But I wasn’t deterred from pursuing my dental career.

I was accepted at the University of Maryland and became a third-generation dentist in my family. I graduated in 1986 with high honors. Instead of a residency, I went to work for my father and another dentist. I was not married at the time, so commuting to two offices that were not close to where I lived was not a problem. I worked five to six days a week and became involved in many dental organizations and study clubs. Very early on, I was asked to join the alumni association board at the University of Maryland Dental School. At that time, the board consisted of older male dentists, and I was told that the group wanted to add young dentists, including females, to the board. At the meetings, I would try to, in Sheryl Sandberg’s words, “lean in” and give unique input. The other board members seemed to love the fresh, new ideas that I brought to the table, but after the meetings nothing was ever done differently. This defeat did not discourage me from wanting to better my profession.

I got married, had two children, and continued to commute at least one hour each way to be an associate in my father’s dental practice. My mother was the office manager, so it was truly a family practice. During this time, from 1986 to 2004, there were very few dental career females who owned their own dental practices, especially in Baltimore, where I lived. After practicing dentistry for 18 years as an associate, I decided to purchase a small practice 10 minutes from my home and 10 minutes from my children’s school rather than buy my father’s practice. My children were 10 and 13 at the time, and even though we had a nanny and my husband’s job was flexible, it was time for me to have the office of my dreams close to home. I remember going to a study club meeting before I bought the new practice, and an older dentist said to me, “Boy, you are really gutsy to leave your father’s practice.”

The dental practice that I purchased supposedly had 800 active patients. However, after the owner and the associate alerted the patients that they would be relocating close by, the 800 patients quickly became 200. I decided that I had to market the practice consistently and continuously, even through the 2008 recession, and it paid off in building a truly solid dental career for myself. All the specialists in the area came to meet me and referred patients to me, and the practice grew. After five years, I moved to a bigger location across the street; and then, several years later, I expanded the facility from five dental chairs to eight. Now, 14 years after purchasing the practice, I have 2,500 active patients and a team of 12.

Even though the freshman class at the University of Maryland Dental School is 60 percent women, I still feel like female dentists are in the minority in the Baltimore area. When I go to dental career meetings, however, I am starting to see more women, which is a wonderful sign.

Here’s How You Can Build Your Own Career in Dentistry

I created a list that will help those of you who are thinking about a career as a dentist, those who are in dental school, and those who are already practicing. These ideas will catapult your practice and make you a well-respected leader in the profession.

  1. Enter a residency program after dental school that will prepare you for the type of practice you want to have.
  2. Invest in clinical continuing education early on to master procedures that will make you a top-notch general practitioner or specialist.
  3. Invest in practice management and marketing courses early on in your career.
  4. Find mentors as soon as you can, even before you graduate, including general dentists, specialists, lawyers, accountants, insurance brokers, real estate brokers, bankers, business professionals, and consultants.
  5. Get involved in your state and local dental societies, and think about taking a leadership role.
  6. Join local study clubs.
  7. Listen to dental podcasts while in the car or at the gym. There are podcasts and Facebook groups just for women in dentistry.
  8. Get involved in community events and organizations.
  9. Give back to the community with free dentistry and dental missions, and get your team involved along with you.
  10. Make sure your dental practice has a presence on social media.
  11. Continually search for fabulous team members, and delegate as much as possible.
  12. Do not overspend on anything, including technology, if your practice is not sufficiently profitable.
  13. Establish a great relationship with a dental lab.
  14. Find a dental supply dealer that you trust.
  15. Work on your practice, not just in your practice.
  16. Make sure you have a reasonable work-life balance.
  17. Exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep.

If You Want to Talk About Building Your Dental Career

I want to applaud Anne Duffy for creating a safe place for women to share their stories and their careers. I hope we can all agree that dentistry is an ideal career choice for women. Good luck in whatever aspect of dentistry you choose. I will always make time to talk to anyone who needs advice. I can be reached at

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