The pathway to practice management

Susie Anderson-Sharkey looks back on her career and gives advice to would-be practice managers and their principals

05 February, 2018 / management

In my earlier years as a practice manager, from time to time people used to ask me how I got into the role. My personal story is that it was purely by accident – it wasn’t a career that I had ever thought about and it found me rather than the other way round! That was probably a blessing because if I’d realised all the sweat, blood and tears (at times literally) it would be, I probably would have looked elsewhere for an easier life. I went into a practice one day to ‘help out’ on reception, and here I am, more than 25 years later, trying my best to pass on my pearls of dental wisdom to anyone who feels inclined to listen!

My first diploma was in hotel management, so I did have a management qualification when I came into the dental industry way back in 1991. I then did my dental nurse training as I was keen to learn the clinical side of dentistry as I felt it would give me a clearer understanding of the dental practice as a business, which indeed it did and has been invaluable throughout the years. I also trained as an oral health educator and worked in an orthodontic practice for a couple of years but the main focus of my working life has been on the management side of things.

There are definite advantages to coming into practice management from a business background as opposed to a nurse in the practice being promoted to practice manager just because they are the longest-running member of staff. The basic principles for running a
business are the same, no matter what sector you work in, and as a qualified business manager, our skills are transferable to any other outwith the dental industry.

“There are definite advantages to coming into practice management from a business background”


Most of the practice managers I am in contact with already have a dental background (as a nurse or receptionist in the practice) or are the spouse to the principal dentist. I only know a handful of managers who have come to the role from a background in management.

By far the most common route into dental practice management is to be a dental nurse or receptionist in a practice where the position becomes vacant. I know of a practice who advertised externally for a practice manager, couldn’t find anyone they considered suitable so gave the position to one of the nurses in the practice… poor soul!

There is a huge difference between nursing chairside, ordering some stock to running a dental practice. The new PM will need much guidance in the coming weeks and months as he or she comes to grips with a whole different reality that is practice management. Practice finance, wages, business development, HR, health and safety, marketing and IT are just a few of the roles that pop into my head when I think of what we do on a daily basis. And, at times, you have to perform all those duties on the same day!

It’s a great way to progress your career to gain a promotion such as this, but with it comes a whole new range of responsibilities that are hitherto unknown to most dental nurses, and they will need a lot of encouragement and reassurance when stepping up to the plate. As a principal who promotes a nurse to manager, send the nurse on as many relevant business courses as possible. These don’t have to be dental-related because, as I’ve said previously, a qualified business manager’s skills are transferable to other businesses.

One of the most important areas of work your manager will be conducting on a day-to-day basis is that of counsellor/mentor/adviser/agony aunt or uncle and much more, to the staff he/she is leading. Have you given them to tools to carry out these tasks quietly and efficiently? Have you allowed time for them to be trained in people management/problem solving/conflict management situations? Were they able to do this as a nurse? No? Then what makes us think they will be able
to carry out these tasks just because we place the tag ‘practice manager’ on them?

Practice managers need to be trained, coached, mentored in practice management as well as gaining the all-important day-to-day working experience. We owe it to them to invest time and finance to give them the best possible chance to be the best possible PM they can be.

Throughout my career as a practice manager, I have never taken the view ‘I’ve arrived’. I’m always striving to be a better version of the manager I am just now. I believe in life-long learning and, to this end, I seek out courses that will be relevant to my role as practice manager. I use the internet to read, learn, keep my CPD up to date and am constantly pushing the boundaries to further my education and knowledge. I am very grateful to my principal, Stephen Jacobs, who has given me opportunities throughout the years the progress my career and expand my knowledge base.

To sum up, there is no tried and tested pathway to becoming a dental practice manager. As a manager it is vital you are constantly learning and keeping up to date with business principles. As a principal, it is vital you support your manager and provide them with the tools to perform the tasks you expect of them.

When all that is said and done, it is a very rewarding and worthwhile career and I can look back on the last 25 years and say that, if I had life to live over again, I would probably do the choosing rather than the choosing being done for me! The very best of luck to all would-be, aspiring practice managers.

Tags: Business / Practice management / Susie Anderson-Sharkey

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