This is part of the Transition Tales & Truths series in which we discuss practice transitions with real dentists.
When Dr. Christy Rens and her husband (a fellow dentist) graduated from the University of Minnesota Dental School, they weren’t quite sure where their future would take them. They assumed they would eventually wind up near family in the Twin Cities.
Life doesn’t always turn out as planned. One day, Dr. Christy got a call with an offer that she and her husband couldn’t refuse, so they packed their bags to try small-town life. The two-year contract even included free housing if they were willing to serve two rural practices.Neither Dr. Christy nor her husband had lived in a small town before. Moving to Stanley, Wisconsin (population 3,600) and working in nearby Abbotsford (population 2,300) was a bit of a shock – especially coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area (metro population 3.2 million).
Despite their hesitations, they settled into their new home – attached to the practice – and decided to embrace the experience. People in town were thrilled to have a local dentist without a 25-mile drive.
The owner dentist wanted them to succeed and provided great mentorship. They met regularly to review the books and learn the business of dentistry. Their contract included a buy-out option after two years, with financing help from the owner.
As the contract drew to a close, Dr. Christy and her husband began planning their return to the Twin Cities. They ran the numbers and discovered that they could buy a house OR a practice in Minneapolis – or a house AND a practice in Abbotsford. Additionally, they could both work part-time, which was appealing as they planned to start a family.
Twenty years later, Dr. Christy has surprised herself by becoming a huge proponent of rural dentistry, saying, “Young dentists would be shocked at the opportunities available.”
A rural practice with lower costs and better benefits
Dr. Christy explains, “Small communities want professionals. When we bought, the selling dentist carried some of the debt, the town gave us some money with unbelievably low interest rates, and we borrowed the rest from the bank. The local bank wanted us to succeed and has been very willing to work with us over the years.”
The practice cost far less than an urban practice, giving Dr. Christy the flexibility to expand the practice to twice its original size. Plus, with no competition, there is no need for a marketing budget. Fees are a bit less than in the Twin Cities, but with lower overhead and a part-time schedule, the practice operates at a profit.
Dr. Christy notes, “If you want to pay your loans off fast without being financially strapped, go rural. You will do way better in a rural practice than in a corporate, a FQHC, or a city practice. If you look at the numbers, you will come out ahead in a rural practice.”
If she was buying today, Dr. Christy might even be eligible for up to $50,000 in student loan repayment. Wisconsin offers the Health Professions Loan Assistance Program to health care professionals in underserved areas, and many states offer similar programs.
Enjoying a balanced lifestyle
One of the biggest appeals of Abbotsford was the work-life balance.
Someone is always home for their three children, and there’s more flexibility to attend the kids’ school activities and work around their family’s schedule. This was especially helpful as Dr. Christy returned from her maternity leaves.
They wanted to travel more as a family – so they bought a plane. They can easily fly to the Twin Cities to visit family for the day or escape the Wisconsin cold in the depths of winter.
Building a supportive dental community
“With rural, you can do anything and everything you want,” says Dr. Christy. Patients don’t want to drive long distances to see specialists, so rural dentists can pursue the skills that interest them. Dr. Christy has expanded her pediatric specialization, while her husband does orthodontics and root canals. Treating everyone – “from kids to age 104!” Dr. Christy laughs – keeps the work interesting.
But at the same time, Dr. Christy and her husband have gotten to know all the other dentists in nearby towns and built a very supportive community.
“It’s less isolating than urban practices because you’re not competing – it feels like a group practice setting. People help each other out,” Dr. Christy explains, noting that fellow dentists frequently cover call for each other during vacations or sick leave – even extended maternity leaves. The dentists share expertise and get together quarterly for a study group to review cases. In between, they consult with each other via email, particularly since digital x-rays have become common.
Advice to younger dentists
Dr. Christy is thrilled she took a chance on rural dentistry and urges others to consider doing the same.
“Don’t write off small towns until you explore them – the opportunities are so great,” she says. If you don’t see anything listed in the area you want to practice, call private dentists in the area and ask – you may find someone looking for an associate or thinking about selling.
However, she adds, “If you’re not so sure you want to live in a small town, look 30 minutes away.”
Most small towns have a larger “hub” town nearby, with opportunities for spouses and access to better shopping and amenities. Dr. Christy and her family found that their nearby “hub” of 20,000 is a better fit. Since she works part time, she only has to make the 25-mile drive a couple of days each week – and it’s an easy drive down a rural highway.
“It’s a really good time to get into a rural practice – there’s a huge need, and as a new dentist, you have your pick.” She notes that a rural practice can be ideal for someone who wants to be her own boss and is willing to try new things, and the camaraderie with local dentists can make the experience very enriching.
As Dr. Christy concludes, “Absolutely look rural. Rural dentists want you to make it, want you to be happy. They want you to succeed, and they will do everything they can to help.”