Management + Leadership

Dental entrepreneurship: Q&A with Paulina Song

During college, dental entrepreneur Paulina Song was committed to a career as a healthcare provider and even worked in various clinical settings to gain experience. However, she soon realized that she didn’t really love the clinical aspect of healthcare and started gravitating toward the broader organizational and administrative functions.

“The more I learned about organized healthcare as an industry and the multiple conflicts of interest that exist between patient and provider, the more I became interested in developing my knowledge in the ‘bigger picture,’” Song explains. “I took a break after college and ultimately made the extremely difficult decision not to pursue dental school. Instead, I took to healthcare management and then went on to consulting. Looking back, it was incredibly hard to have cut my losses on the investment I had made in preparing for dental school; however, it was truly the best decision I had ever made for my long-term career satisfaction.”

Now, Song is the owner of Lake Merritt Dental in Oakland, California, a founding board member of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of American Association of Dental Office Managers (AADOM), and proud recipient of the 2015 AADOM Green Leader award for her leadership at Lake Merritt Dental. She is a member of Women Healthcare Executives, the California Association of Healthcare Leaders (American College of Healthcare Executives) and currently serves on the Associate Board of the Alameda Health Systems Foundation. She has a bachelor’s degree in physiological science from UCLA and a masters in healthcare administration from UCSF.

After 10 years of management and technology consulting in the dental industry, Song co-founded the dental tech company, Zentist, to bring automation to dental insurance claims processing and revenue cycle management.

What gave you the idea to co-found Zentist? 

After gaining some experience managing dental practices, I began consulting for many of them and ultimately founded my own consulting firm, Practyx. Through these consulting opportunities, it became clear to me that there were some critical functions that virtually every practice struggled with. Dental insurance has become increasingly complex and is the cause for much antagonism between patients and providers.

Additionally, dental administration is not exactly a structured career path and the vast majority of dental administrative support staff learn on the job. For practice owners, the obscure nature of dental insurance management, coupled with the lack of staff training, yields some crippling effects of staff turnover and mounting admin work as they try to grow their practices. I saw firsthand how leveraging technology and automation dramatically increased the operational efficiency and stability of the practices I had managed. For example, the advent of online payment and appointment reminders saves a practice significant time in mundane administrative work. Thus, I sought to bring this same type of technology in tackling one of the most difficult functions in dental practice — insurance claims submission and payment management.

If a student is interested in entrepreneurship, what’s the best way to start?

In college, I decided to try some courses in the school of management. The entry-level business school course happened to be introductory accounting. On the first day of class, I recall the professor saying that everything else I learned in college I would likely forget the second I graduate, but this course will help me in all areas of my career forever. At the time, I figured he was exaggerating, but I’ve come to see that accounting, which is the language of business, has truly been a vital foundation to my understanding of how economics, businesses and a capitalistic society operates at large. In order to truly evaluate an opportunity, create a plan and execute with conviction, it is so important to have a strong foundation in the language of business. I strongly recommend taking some foundational courses such as accounting and economics to develop tools to prepare you for any entrepreneurial pursuit.

Since you are also the CEO of the dental consultation firm Practyx, what is your advice to future dentists who want to run a successful practice? 

Hire people you admire and be relentless about curating the right team. A successful practice, or any business for that matter, all depends on the team who works together to realize a goal. Without the right team, execution simply doesn’t happen. As a dentist or owner of a practice, you may have motivation, leadership skills and excellent clinical abilities; however, without the complementary support staff, office manager and fellow clinicians, you will always feel like you are struggling. Most operational issues can be solved with methodical strategies and systems. People issues can only be solved by having different people.

What’s a day in your life like and how do you stay stress-free?

Fortunately, our startup was able to effortlessly move into a remote work environment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without the added commute into San Francisco and the frequent evening events that used to take place, I’ve been able to take advantage of the extra hours to focus more on my health and well-being.

My day usually starts with an early morning workout or a hike with my dogs. Usually while I’m out, I’ll get on a quick morning huddle with my team to review the critical to-do’s and any meetings that are occurring that day. I come home, make myself tea and do a short 10-15 minute meditation before I settle down at my desk. As an executive, my work days usually comprise of quarterly planning sessions, meeting one on one with my direct reports and leading progress report meetings with my teams. I tend to eat lunch and snack while I work, as I don’t prefer to break my concentration when I get in the work zone.

Since everything is happening virtually now, I take the more casual meetings outdoors at the neighborhood park or in the yard. Conveniently, I am also able to prepare dinner in between meetings and while taking care of less focused administrative work. In the evenings, depending on the day, I will either be in a board meeting for an organization I work with, working on a hobby (currently I am taking a sewing class) or hanging out with my husband. I avoid social media and TV but will still watch a good show now and then. Before bed, I like to do some gentle stretching or yoga.

The best advice I was given about managing stress is to simply focus on the task at hand. If it’s something that has to be dealt with and you can do something about it, then do it. If something is happening and there is nothing you can do about it, then don’t worry about it.

Being where you are in life now, what advice can you share with students who are pursuing dentistry?

Dentistry is a wonderful profession with a lot of autonomy, stability and relatively low stress, when compared with some more medically involved clinical careers. There are amazing opportunities within dentistry to build lucrative businesses while helping a lot of people. That being said, there are significant disparities between those who can and cannot afford and access dental care in this country, and the providers share a big part of the responsibility in setting the terms upon which patients can access them for care. I would encourage all aspiring dentists to keep the larger systemic issues of the healthcare industry in mind and to think about how you can use your skills and abilities to level the field, put people before profits and contribute to a more equitable society.

In your opinion, what will be the future of dental business?

One of the hottest topics right now is the infusion of private equity into the DSO space and the rapid consolidation of small individually owned practices. With ever-increasing tuition and more large group practices, new dentists may see fewer opportunities to operate their own practice.

As more healthcare data is aggregated, insurance companies may leverage this information to change how they provide coverage to patients and, thus, affect reimbursement to providers. With the heightened attention toward healthcare reform, we may see consolidation on the insurance front as well. For example, medical coverage in dentistry has seen increased attention as dentists have used technology to expand their service offerings to perform medically involved procedures, and dentists become a point of primary care screening of diseases that have manifestation in the oral cavity. Branded aligner companies have led the charge in creating competitive retail offerings to traditional dental procedures and drawn patients away from the traditional practice setting for care.

These are but a few examples of trends I’ve been monitoring as part of my work; however, true changes will take years, if not decades, to manifest. I often describe what’s happening in dentistry as being 10 years behind what has happened to medicine and general healthcare. To catch a glimpse of where dentistry is going, just see where medicine is now!

~Christy Zuo, ArtCenter College of Design ’20, ASDA Predental Advisory Committee Member

Christy Zuo

Christy (Zhaolin) Zuo is a member of ASDA’s national predental advisory committee. She earned her BFA from ArtCenter College of Design and is a member of the AGS Honor Society. She is a lifelong enthusiast of community service and is committed to alleviating global social and health care disparities. She is applying to dental school in the 2020-2021 cycle as a non-traditional student.

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