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Leaving practice: why it pays to check your contract

26 July 2018

Dr Mike Rutherford, dentolegal adviser at Dental Protection, reflects on the recent Young Dentist Conference and what it said about the changing nature of dental practice

I was at Dental Protection’s Young Dentist Conference recently and listened to, among others, Dr Sahil Soni, a graduate of 2009 who is wise beyond his years, and someone who has a profound understanding of dental practice. Sahil presented what he considered his top ten practice hints, and one of them was to make sure you have a lawyer look over your employment contract before you sign, and make sure that the provisions for withholding pay when you leave are clearly spelled out, and that you agree with them.

I was lucky enough to practise in a different era, based on handshakes and consideration, and so I never had a work contract. Admittedly that did not work out all the time then, and contracts are not always a guarantee of protection now, but Sahil’s advice is sound. Too often dentolegal advisers take calls from members who have had pay withheld for possible remedial treatments, without their agreement and with little chance of ever seeing the money again. So I recommend that you do as Sahil suggested, and spend the time and money seeking legal advice on contracts. Yes, it can be expensive but not as expensive as losing pay at the other end.

Looking back (over my shoulder)

I left clinical practice a few weeks ago after 39 years at the coalface. I’m still not sure how I feel about leaving, largely because my actual last day was just a rush of sorting out arrangements; not at all like I expected. I think it will be a few months before I really know what this means to me, but am already finding myself thinking about individual patients – how their treatment is going, how their daughter’s childbirth went, how were their holidays. It’s a bit hard to suddenly switch off after 29 years of treating multiple generations of the same families.

Before I left, I told the new principal to keep my last two weeks’ pay (not as generous as it sounds as I was only doing two long days a week, so about a week’s pay in real terms) in case any of my work needed fixing. “Why?” she asked – “we have always just fixed each other’s problems for nothing – it all evens out” – yes it does, except I won’t be there now to do that, and my reputation and my patients’ welfare is important to me. The new principal resisted and then finally accepted the offer, but told me that I would get it all back in six months’ time regardless.

This is what practice should be like – the collegiate, common good approach of trusting each other and trying to do the right thing: employer, employee and patient. Of course it is easier when you have been there a long time and know each other well, and there is nothing like holding a colleague’s newborn baby to cement a long-term, trusting relationship.

Open mind, open dialogue

I know that a lot of dental practices are no longer like this, particularly if you haven’t been there long enough to have this kind of relationship. The ethos of many practices is as far removed from mutual respect and trust as they can be – you are there to do a job and answer to an unknown and sometimes unseen boss.

Enter any work relationship with an open mind and open dialogue with the principal/practice owner to avoid any potential misunderstandings, and hopefully when you hang up your drill, as I have, you too can feel poignant and fulfilled, not relieved and exhausted.

You can also listen to our podcast series for further guidance and advice.

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