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Associate’s Corner

Building a Referral Base As a New Associate Endodontist

By Helen Yang, D.M.D.

Young associate endodontists generally start out dependent on the goodwill and referrals of the owner/partner endodontists. Over time, however, a successful associate can gradually develop his or her own referral base. Achieving this will not only enhance the associate’s productivity and value to the office, it is also a useful exercise in building a personal brand.

This article discusses how associate endodontists can approach building relationships with existing and new referring dentists, beyond simply performing excellent RCTs (which is hard enough as it is fresh out of residency). In researching this article, I interviewed several faculty members at the University of Illinois at Chicago who are owners of successful endodontics practices, work with associates, and have done associateships themselves. Their insights are summarized below.

1) Trust is the most important quality to establish early. The referring dentist wants to know that you, the associate, will take care of their patients as well as the owner endodontist. They need to know that they can rely on you to support their treatment plan in front of the patient. They do not want to be blindsided by unexpected changes in treatment plans, treatment outcomes, or patient expectations. If you or the patient is unsure about something, it is wise to give referring doctors a heads up before treatment is rendered. When a case turns out differently than expected, e.g., if a canal is unable to be located or a greater-than-expected amount sealer was extruded, give the referring doctor a heads up before the patient returns to their chair.

2) Trust is built through open channels of communication. One faculty member interviewed recalled early in his associateship days, he personally phoned every general dentist whose patients he saw for the first time. The key is to find a clinical reason to call, such as confirming a whether a tooth needs post space, asking the dentist’s preference for temporary material, or following up on a patient’s symptoms. If the doctor is busy, you can still introduce yourself as the new associate to the front desk staff and leave a phone number for the doctor to return the call at their convenience. The goal is to facilitate comfortable, direct, and two-way dialogue between you and the referring doctor to share questions and comments. Learn and respect the referring doctor’s preferred method of communication, be it through texting, emailing, phone call or minimal contact.

3) Be available to help with emergencies. As an associate, you are probably expected to cover evening or weekend shifts or work around holiday time. Squeeze emergencies in during lunch or staying late to see a patient in acute pain when other offices are not available is worth the effort to garner a referring doctor’s appreciation. Make sure you and the staff are unified in presenting a gracious attitude before and after the patient encounter, and tell the referring doctor personally that you are happy to see emergency patients in the future.

4) Build up your referring doctors. Expect that anything you say or comment on in front of a patient may be passed back to their referring doctor. Use this opportunity to increase a patient’s confidence in their dentist by commenting on any excellent quality dental work you observe or expressing that you concur with their treatment approach.

5) Be proactive during downtime. Unless you are extremely lucky, most new associates will see with empty slots in their schedules and plenty of waiting around. One faculty member interviewed recalls her schedule having entire half-days without any scheduled appointments. With the blessing of the owner endodontist, she visited several local general dentists’ offices introducing herself to the doctor and staff, and leaving business cards. Other activities to do during free time include making aforementioned phone calls, following up with patients, and writing thorough post-op reports.

6) The holiday season is a time when many specialists send fruit baskets, gift cards and well-wishes to their referrals. The question of giving gifts as an associate may be tricky to avoid being perceived as going over the office owners. Two faculty members interviewed cautioned against the practice, saying that gift to referral offices should come from the endodontics office rather than individual associate doctor.

A responsive, trustworthy, and excellent clinician is recognized as such through many small encounters. This article presented some ideas for a young associate to seize those opportunities to communicate effectively with referring dentists. If you have any other tips or ideas, please share them with me at

Dr. Helen Yang is a member of the AAE’s Resident and New Practitioner Committee.

Acknowledgements to Drs. William Nudera, Michael Mintz, Nermeen Moussa and Mary Um.