The Australian Defence Force is an exciting alternative for dentists seeking something more than private practice. But dentistry in the ADF is not for the faint hearted. By Shane Conroy
Think running a busy dental practice is challenging? Try doing it at sea on a cramped navy ship. That was the reality facing Dr Jesse Green as a young naval officer and practising navy dentist.
“Dentistry in a makeshift environment on a ship is certainly a challenging experience,” he says. “I was in a mobile dental team, which meant we’d pack up our gear and go from ship to ship to ship. We had to carry very heavy equipment up and down narrow ladders, and then there was the vibration and rolling of the ship to contend with. It was certainly a long way from dental school.”
After about seven years in the Royal Australian Navy, Green went into private practice and is now an in-demand business coach for dentists and the best-selling author of Retention! How to Plug the #1 Profit Leak in Your Dental Practice. He believes that his experiences in the navy laid a strong platform for his success today.
“I wanted to put myself in an environment where I would be surrounded by conscientious people who care about the kind of work they do. I also wanted to grow and have experiences that I couldn’t have elsewhere,” he says.
“As my time in the navy progressed, I was given more and more responsibility. I learned a lot about leadership, and about developing other leaders as well. As you become more senior in the ranks, you learn how to manage teams, how to grow teams, and take on a broader perspective so you can see where your team and your role within that team fits into the bigger picture. It’s about coming together to operate with a single focus.”
Student to officer
Dr Green earned a navy scholarship while he was studying at university. While the Australian Defence Force (ADF) also accepts established dentists, university sponsorships are a common entry path.
Major Michael Lines, deputy head of the Royal Australian Army Dental Corps, has spent 30 years in the ADF, including more than 10 years as a practising army dentist. He explains that students are often sponsored part way through their dental studies, and receive their first army posting after graduation.
“The ADF covers the cost of the university course and pays the student a salary while they study,” he says. “After graduation, they go through their basic training, then complete a two-year supervision program.” After that, army dentists are ready for deployment. They could be posted to one of several army bases around Australia, or overseas. Major Lines himself has spent time serving in Darwin, Wagga Wagga, Sydney and Brisbane.
“Army dentists can also take part in special projects such as our Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program,” he says. “Army dentists spend time providing dental care to people in disadvantaged Indigenous communities, which is a very rewarding experience for both the patients and our dentists.”
Learning to lead
Captain Matt Bozanic is a current dental officer with the 33 Dental Company in the Royal Australian Army. He graduated from the University of Melbourne two years ago on an ADF sponsorship and hasn’t looked back since.
“I wanted to put myself in an environment where I would be surrounded by conscientious people who care about the kind of work they do. I also wanted to grow and have experiences that I couldn’t have elsewhere.”—Dr Jesse Green, a former navy dentist
“I went from working long shifts in pubs to pay my way through uni to receiving an army salary while I studied. That gave me a lot of extra time to really focus on my studies, and my grades went up as a result,” he says.
“After graduation, I completed basic training at Duntroon in Canberra, but because dentists enter the army at officer level, it’s not like what you see in the movies. Of course, we have to be physically fit, but we spend a lot of time learning about the chain of command, the legal system and healthcare logistics for field deployment.”
Dentists who enter the army on a sponsorship are required to serve a term the equivalent of their university sponsorship period plus one year. However, Captain Bozanic sees a much longer future for himself in the army.
“I live in Brisbane city and commute to work at the base much like any other job,” he says. “I love the camaraderie that comes with working as part of a large health network and am really happy with the amount of clinical time I get at the moment. In the future, I can decide to go into a more administration-based or resource management role, and the army will sponsor me if I want to return to study to do a specialisation.”
After the army
Major Lines also points out that army dentists are allowed to hold employment outside of the ADF, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their army duties. “Some army dentists do choose to take on shifts at private practices in addition to their ADF responsibilities,” he says. “This often provides a commercial aspect to their development that they don’t get in the army. Obviously, we don’t charge our patients for dental services so that’s never a conversation we would need to have as army dentists.”
While former ADF dentists are generally highly sought-after by private practices, Dr Green agrees that the commercial aspect of dentistry was something he needed to come to terms with when he left the navy and went into private practice.
“In private practice, suddenly I had to charge for the services I was providing, and that took me a little while to get the hang of it,” he says. “To be able to provide the best services in private practice, you need to remain commercially viable, so there is a balance to be had there.
“However, the structure and processes you learn in the military tie very strongly to business leadership. They help us to understand where to focus our time and energy to ensure consistency of delivery. Having the right structures and processes in place in your practice is fundamental to your success.”