Dr. Shalin Patel visits with dental student Joanna Seo Han.
Dr. Shalin Patel visits with dental student Joanna Seo Han.
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Message to new SOD graduates: Patients, not you, wear the crown

Published on Monday, April 18, 2022

By: Ruth Cummins

Call it advice, call it a message or call it a lesson: Dr. Shalin Patel had one for fourth-year School of Dentistry students on the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus.

Your impending career is not just about the teeth.

“Dentistry is crazy. The first day you start, you will be the boss. You will be the leader,” said Patel, a Laurel native, 2007 SOD graduate and chief medical officer and partner with DECA Dental Group/Ideal Dental, a Dallas-based practice with more than 100 locations across Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Washington state.

Patel spoke April 15 to a group of May 2022 graduates at the invitation of SOD Dean Dr. Sree Koka, but he didn’t talk much about treating teeth. Instead, he opened their eyes to why they should ponder what they really want in a career, preferably before they get too deep into it.

And, he said, the measure of your success doesn’t necessarily lie with how good your dental skills are.

“I want to give you guys insight and perspective,” said Patel, who lives in suburban Frisco, Texas with wife Reshoo, a Greenwood native, and children Aiden and Ava.

Dr. Shalin Patel, a 2007 School of Dentistry graduate, gives May 2022 graduates advice on beginning their practices.
Patel, a 2007 School of Dentistry graduate, gives May 2022 graduates advice on beginning their practices.

When he reported for his first day of work at a private practice following dental school graduation, Patel told the students, he was wearing khakis. Thought he’d have orientation and then go to lunch with new coworkers.

Instead, someone handed him a sticky note on the patients he’d treat that day. “They said, ‘We’re ready to numb,’” he recalled a staffer saying about the patient waiting for him. “Everybody is staring at me.”

He got to work.

“That’s leadership. You figure stuff out like that all the time,” Patel said.

Patel, 40, is author of the book Transforming Dentistry Together. It’s a guide for new dentists, offering food for thought on why some have immediate success, while others struggle both personally and professionally. Patel gives back to the SOD in multiple ways, including sponsoring an annual scholarship for a graduating fourth-year.

Much of Patel’s work is rooted in transformational leadership – building and training clinical teams around a growth strategy of working collaboratively. At DECA, he establishes a culture of patient-centered care by hiring and training elite dentists from prestigious dental schools nationwide.

His advice to the Class of 2022?

  • Job interviews go both ways. Ask questions, including whether dentists in the practice mentor new practitioners. “You should be interviewing me,” Patel said.

“I want you all practicing,” the University of Mississippi graduate said. “You are selecting a job. You should know before you walk in the door what’s important to you. “

  • Wherever you practice, appreciate the team around you and the patients you take care of together.

“Your patients are your guests,” he said. “Your patients will choose you. The minute you forget that, you’re going to fail.

“This is more important than anything you will do: It matters how you make your patients and staff feel. The staff makes significantly less than you, but they do everything to make you successful. How you treat your staff and your patients will ultimately define your success.”

  • Separate a practice’s finances from patient care – but learn how they intersect in a way that benefits the patient.

“We do not talk about dollars in my office,” Patel said. “We talk about case acceptance. What have we completed today?

“What happens if someone is in pain? Do they get treatment done?” he asked. “Every single time.”

Look out for your patients by looking out for their future, he advised. Help them to understand that taking care of their dental challenges now can ward off misery down the road.

“Every procedure will get more expensive and more invasive. You have to articulate that,” Patel said. “Bridge the gap between clinical and financial. Instead of just the present, we tell them the future. That’s a powerful tool.”

  • Don’t miss out on the opportunities artificial intelligence and innovative technology can bring to your practice. Use it to better diagnose and treat your patients.

“When I walked up to the fifth floor of the dental school today, my jaw dropped,” Patel told them. “When I was in school here, there was no simulation lab. There weren’t computer screens everywhere. There were Bunsen burners.

“Today, you can detect Class 2 decay without taking an X-ray,” he said. “If you don’t have certain technology, patients will go somewhere else. Think about that as you continue to evolve in your career.”

Dr. Shalin Patel marvels at updates to SOD laboratory space on a tour with student Grant Warren.
Dr. Shalin Patel marvels at updates to SOD laboratory space on a tour with student Grant Warren.

Fourth-year student Grant Warren of Pascagoula, who served as class president all four years at the SOD, is headed for private practice in Ocean Springs.

“I thought it was very neat to hear how Mississippi impacted him, and how he was able to take some of the Southern hospitalities we take for granted and integrate it into his dental service organization on a large scale,” Warren said of Patel.

“He does have a big company. He’s very successful. But at the end of the day, he’s a people person,” Warren said. “He’s all about making his guests – not his patients – have the best experience possible.

“It’s neat to see someone with that mindset and perspective, versus someone where it’s all about the money.”

As you wrap up the last four years, Patel told the Class of 2022, there’s a lot to figure out. “Know your culture. Know your brand. Know who you are,” he said. “Do private practice. Do public health. Whatever you do, don’t stop learning. Don’t stop collaborating.

“At DECA, we have a culture. It’s not just a job. You’re not just a dentist. It’s not about you anymore. It’s about the team.

“That’s leadership.”