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Teeing Up Success: Dr. Drew Ferris's Orthodontic Journey

Published on: Mar 25, 2024
By: Brought to you by Dr. Reza Ardalan
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by Dr. Reza Ardalan, Dental Slang Podcast

Dive into the world of orthodontics with Dr. Drew Ferris, a trailblazer in clear aligners and cutting-edge practices. From his journey from college golfer to renowned orthodontist, to insights on the future of AI and 3D printing in dentistry, this podcast offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolving landscape of orthodontics. This episode is packed with valuable insights and engaging anecdotes. Don't miss out on this enlightening conversation! Tune in now!

Listen to the full podcast on DentalSlang.com, or read the recap below.

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Dr. Ardalan: Please welcome Dr. Drew Ferris. Drew, welcome to the podcast, my friend.

Dr. Ferris: Thank you, Reza. I'm thrilled to be here. It's a great podcast.

Dr. Ardalan: Now, let me start with this: Congratulations on your growing family. I've noticed that after having kids, it is now easier to relate to my patients and even to their parents. Do you find it similarly easier to connect with parents when you're in the office? And secondly, do you think having children helps you relate better to the kids in your practice? Moreover, do the children you treat provide you with more patience when dealing with your own kids at home?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, I mean, I think there are a lot of benefits there. My practice, from an orthodontic standpoint, typically starts dealing with patients around the age of seven or so. So my kids are still a little young for that. But just being a dad and being able to sympathize and relate is huge. Additionally, we started a pediatric practice a couple of years ago. It's amazing how little many parents know about pediatric dentistry and when their children should see the dentist. So just making that connection has been really beneficial. We also support a lot of children's events in town. Before I had kids, I would attend these events, and people would ask why I was there. Now, having my own family makes it much easier to be involved in family events. So yeah, it's helpful.

Dr. Ardalan: If you're anything like me, and I believe we've discussed this before, it's often easier for us to leave work, deal with a bunch of kids in the office, and then come home. Sometimes, it's more challenging to stay home with our own kids. So, I think moms have the tougher end of the job description.

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, for sure. For some reason, I can see a hundred patients in a day, and it seems like a breeze. Then I'm home for an hour after work, and I'm like, "This was harder than my whole day."

Dr. Ardalan: So, going back in time a little bit, one of the things I learned during my research for this is that when you were at the University of Missouri, you were a college golfer. How did you transition from college golf to a career in orthodontics?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, well, it's kind of a funny story because, you know, when you're in high school, you're just... I mean, you're an idiot in general, but I won a couple of golf tournaments in St. Louis, Missouri. So at the time, I'm like, "Well, clearly I just won a couple of golf tournaments. I'm probably going to be the next Tiger Woods." That was my mindset. I got some offers to play in college and got some scholarships. I ended up playing at the University of Missouri, which was great. You declare your major fairly early there, and they're like, "Well, what do you want to major in?" I said finance because I'm going to be the next Tiger Woods, and I'm going to need to manage all this money that I'm making.

Looking back, it's hilarious because, I mean, literally within the first, I don't know, three weeks of being in college I realized I just wasn't at that level. I wasn't going to make any money. I played for about three years, but into my second year, I was like, "Alright, I've got to figure something out." My uncle was a dentist, and I thought, he's doing really well. He was in a small town and he was kind of the mayor of the town, you know? And he worked three and a half days a week, played a lot of golf on the weekends. It was a good gig. So, I grauated with a dual major in finance and real estate and then had to pick up all the sciences to then apply to dental school.

Dr. Ardalan: Well, yeah, listen, there's plenty of dentists that enjoy that schedule.

Dr. Ferris: It works out well. But I remember being in dental school, and they're like, "Oh, yeah, if you become a specialist, like an orthodontist, you'll work half as much and make more money." And that's not happening right now. I feel like I'm working pretty hard.

Dr. Ardalan: Wait, so, as a skilled golfer, did you find that there are any skills from the golf world that help you become a successful clinician? Are there any correlations there?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, I mean, I think any type of athletics is great. Team sports, especially, because we're managing a team now, right? But in individual sports like golf, there's a lot that translates, like time management, for example. When I was in college, I also joined a fraternity, which wasn't recommended as a D1 athlete at the University of Missouri. They said, "No, you can't." But my sister had gone there and said, "Oh, you have to join a fraternity." So anyway, I'd be getting hazed as a pledge until like 5 a.m., and then I'd have weights at 5:30 for golf. I'd rush over to the athletic facility, do weights until 7:30, go to class from 8 to noon, and play golf the rest of the day until it got dark. Then I had athletic study club and fraternity study hours or whatever. Every single minute of the day was consumed with something. It's amazing how much you can fit into a day with good time management. So I'd say that's probably the biggest thing. Also, just being competitive. I'm in a super competitive environment here in Santa Barbara, and I like competition. I've been able to transfer the competitiveness on the field or on the golf course to business and trying to succeed that way.

Dr. Ardalan: Yeah, that's awesome. Sadly, I had zero athletic ability, and my golf game is the exact opposite of yours. You're trying to hit the ball the fewest amount of times as possible, while I'm trying to get my money's worth. So I'm aiming to bring my per-shot average down. If I can hit the ball 100 or 110 times, it's like less than a dollar a shot, you know, not counting all the balls I lose in the water. I also need time to have some drinks too.

So, I know you talked about your uncle being in the dental field, but as you started your professional journey in orthodontics, were there other significant mentors who played a role in where you are now?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, growing up I had an orthodontist who I really liked in St. Louis, Missouri. What was interesting about him is that he also got involved in real estate. So he was buying medical buildings, and then he would put his practice in one, and at some point, he had six practices and leased space to hospital imaging centers and such. As a finance and real estate major in college, I found it really cool how he was able to leverage his cash flow into real estate and diversify outside of just dentistry. So he was kind of a mentor in that sense. I liked what he was doing because he was diversified outside of just dentistry.

Once I got into residency, I had more mentors. I was at Loma Linda, and there was a guy named Steve Tracy who recently passed away. He was always on the cutting edge of things in orthodontics, bringing lasers to orthodontics and such. I would spend time outside of residency at his office just learning.

When I came into practice in Santa Barbara, I had an amazing mentor, Ray Kubish. He was my partner for like four or five years. He was one of those guys who was always learning and adopting innovative approaches. He wasn't the know-it-all type; he valued dialogue and incorporating different perspectives. We would have discussions on treatment, business, and patients. He was a huge mentor.

Now, I would say the biggest mentor I have is David Sarver, a legend in orthodontic history. To have him as a friend, colleague, and mentor to bounce ideas off of has been huge. I believe you always need to have a mentor.

Dr. Ardalan: So, do you think having mentors like that in your life helped contribute to your development, leading to your recognition as one of the key opinion leaders in the industry?


Dr. Ferris: Yeah, I mean, I think that when you start thinking that you know it all and you're the guy, that's when you fail because there's so much to know and so much to learn. Just experience-wise, you can't know it all. I've been out for 10 years now, and there are still situations and cases that make me throw my hands up and think, "Man, I need some help. I need some advice." So yeah, I just think it's super important to always have a mentor. Now, I appreciate being able to mentor others who are coming along, but at the same time, I value having mentors for myself.


Dr. Ardalan: Speaking of that, you teach a couple of courses yourself, correct?

Dr. Ferris: For the past seven years or so, I've been heavily involved in teaching and lecturing. I'm on faculty at Loma Linda University. Additionally, I travel extensively for study clubs, symposiums, and major dental events. I also serve as a key opinion leader for Align and other companies. However, all this involved a lot of travel. In 2019, for instance, I did around 42 speaking engagements.

What I've realized is that despite our practice's success—since buying and later partnering in a practice, then expanding to a couple of orthodontic practices and one pediatric practice, with plans for further expansion—there's a need for knowledge on implementation. While attending lectures is valuable, knowing how to put systems in place within your office is crucial. There's no better way to learn this than by seeing it in action within a successful orthodontic practice.

My passion and focus in education now lie in inviting people to my office to see firsthand how to create a thriving practice, establish effective systems, and build a strong team. Additionally, there's a significant clinical aspect; providing quality clinical care is paramount to success.

Dr. Ardalan: Drew, in your practice and when you're teaching, are you focusing on aligners or traditional braces, or is it a combination of both?

Dr. Ferris: My practice is currently 70 to 80% aligners, and there are several reasons for this, primarily regarding efficiency. Transitioning from a two-doctor practice to a single-doctor practice while tripling the number of new patients and new patient starts requires significant efficiency improvements unless multiple associates are brought on board. I achieved this by leveraging the digital platforms provided by aligners, which reduce chair time. With aligners, I can see patients every 12 to 15 weeks, whereas with braces, it's every six weeks. So, while I teach on both methods, I emphasize how digital dentistry and orthodontics can be used to maximize efficiency and profitability.

Dr. Ardalan: Well, that's a perfect segue. As a pediatric dentist focusing on early facings and growth and development, I've witnessed the clear aligner market explode in the past few years. With companies like Align and Invisalign leading the way, there are also numerous other options emerging. Are there specific qualities or features you prioritize when evaluating aligner products?

Dr. Ferris: For me, it's all about patient care and what works best in my hands. The great thing about the aligner space right now is the increasing competition, which drives more innovation. It's encouraging to see companies with orthodontic backgrounds in brackets and wires venturing into the aligner space, as there's significant overlap. So, I'm always evaluating what works best for my patients and how I can improve their treatment experience.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of aligners versus braces is crucial. While aligners are often seen as suitable for mild cases, they can also be effective for complex cases and phase one treatments in the pediatric space. In my opinion, aligners are often a superior option for phase one treatments due to several reasons. Overall, incorporating aligners into my practice has been a game changer.

Dr. Ardalan: Now, dentistry as a whole has witnessed a surge in artificial intelligence, particularly in orthodontics. How do you envision AI and 3D printing shaping the future of orthodontics?

Dr. Ferris: It's amazing. Within our practice, we utilize 3D printing, particularly for our clear brackets. These brackets are essentially 3D printed, providing unique and individualized brackets for each patient's specific tooth. Unlike standardized brackets, which have uniform slot dimensions, shape, and size, these customized brackets match the anatomy of each patient's teeth perfectly.

Also, the ability to take a scan, simulate treatment outcomes, and show patients what their results will look like within their own face is revolutionary. This technology allows us to transfer these simulations into either aligners or brackets, or even 3D print appliances tailored to each patient's needs. The potential of combining this with AI, which can analyze vast amounts of data to improve applications and appliances, is enormous. The future of orthodontics looks incredibly promising.

Dr. Ardalan: Yeah, I appreciate your perspective on it. Artificial intelligence has certainly gained traction in mainstream media lately. However, I agree that it's important to acknowledge both the benefits and potential concerns associated with it. When utilized efficiently within your scope of practice, AI can indeed be a game changer. It seems like you're already implementing it effectively in your practice, which is impressive.

Dr. Ferris: In our industry, there's a prevailing concern that advancing technology might eventually replace the need for doctors. However, we've witnessed some unsuccessful attempts in this direction, with companies investing billions of dollars into creating a DIY approach. Patients need to understand that there's a reason why I went through 12 years of schooling after high school. It's not a simple process. While it might have been convenient to skip all that time, the reality is that expertise and skill are essential in healthcare.

Dr. Ardalan: You had more time for golf.

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, exactly. However, someone still needs to manage and utilize all the digital aspects and data we have to effectively implement treatments for patients.

Dr. Ardalan: I'd like to shift gears a bit because, besides being an amazing clinician, you also have a strong business sense, as you've mentioned in our conversation. For our listeners aiming to grow their practices, finding the right associate can be one of the most challenging tasks. What criteria do you consider when hiring an associate or someone to join your practice? Specifically, what qualities are you looking for in individuals entering the world of Drew Ferris and how you operate?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, I really value this approach, not just with my doctors or associates, but with all my employees. The best ones are those who feel invested in the practice as if they have equity, even if they don't. They take ownership of their work and make it their own. When I'm seeking an associate, I want them to feel well taken care of and have a sense of ownership, even if there isn't an avenue for equity in their role.

I believe in giving associates independence and trusting them to excel in their areas of expertise. For instance, my pediatric associate is fantastic at what she does, and I defer to her expertise in pediatric dentistry. I don't micromanage treatment decisions; instead, I focus on creating a positive patient experience. This approach fosters a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Ultimately, I'm looking for individuals who want to take ownership, are proactive, and are eager to be involved in the community. Community involvement is essential to us, so being willing to engage with families and the community is a crucial aspect of the role.

Dr. Ardalan: Yeah, that's awesome. We also prioritize core values and empower our team members to take initiative and be autonomous. Despite the uncertain economic times, we've managed to continue growing our practice.

When considering the landscape of orthodontics, I believe practices as a whole are being impacted by the economy and the unpredictable times we're living in.

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, what I've observed is that many colleagues and friends are facing significant challenges, especially from a human resources standpoint. It's perhaps the toughest period I've witnessed, and even doctors with decades of experience would agree. Hiring competent individuals has become increasingly difficult across all industries and businesses, exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19.

Dr. Ardalan: 100%

Dr. Ferris: I think what it's done is it's discouraged some doctors because what typically bothers everybody when they go home at night isn't usually about clinical procedures, like a class two fill, but rather concerns about staff management. I've noticed that some practitioners opt to sell to private equity firms because they believe it will alleviate the HR burden, allowing them to focus solely on dentistry or orthodontics. However, I see this as both a challenge and an opportunity. With the impact of COVID-19, some older doctors have chosen to retire, creating opportunities for others to grow. While most dentists remain busy, private practices still offer value and potential for growth. While I'm not opposed to private equity and selling practices, I believe it's crucial to have the right reasons. Selling won't magically resolve HR issues. For instance, if your assistants don't show up one day, regardless of who owns the practice, you're still left in a difficult situation.

Dr. Ardalan: Yeah

Dr. Ferris: I mean, as the doctor, you still have to manage that aspect of it.

Dr. Ardalan: Yeah, we've observed the same trend in the pediatric space. I agree with your earlier point about the importance of staying engaged and continuously learning, especially with the guidance of mentors who are also lifelong learners. For those interested in delving deeper into orthodontics, attending courses like yours would undoubtedly be valuable. However, I also believe there are effective ways to teach orthodontics online.

While nothing can replace hands-on experience, online courses can still provide valuable knowledge and skills. Personally, I've found certain online courses to be exceptionally helpful in orthodontics. If someone is considering this path, I would recommend researching reputable online courses and resources to supplement their learning journey.

Dr. Ferris: Yeah, absolutely. Starting from an orthodontic standpoint, there are several good courses available. Annual meetings and conferences are excellent initial places to start, despite some repetition. David Starver recently launched an online education platform, leveraging his extensive background and textbooks. He's essentially written the book on many aspects of orthodontics.

I've been amazed to discover that some innovations we see today, such as simulating a smile within a patient's face, were actually pioneered by him about 20 years ago. He's ahead of his time in many ways. His online course would undoubtedly be invaluable, considering his wealth of knowledge and experience.

As a specialist, it's easy to become isolated within your own field. However, I find it crucial to engage in interdisciplinary care. That's why I'm heavily involved in organizations like the Seattle Study Club, where I serve as a director for a local chapter. In our club, we have over 40 dentists, each representing a different specialty. Participating in such clubs provides a broader understanding of dentistry and offers opportunities to learn from others' experiences. From business aspects to clinical insights, there's much to gain from these interactions. So, I believe these are valuable resources worth exploring.

Dr. Ardalan: That's brilliant. All right, the last thing, you're doing so much, and I know that our listeners are going to want to know more. What's the best way for the listeners to contact you, whether they want to learn about your course, which I think you're doing in Santa Barbara, or if they just have other questions about real estate or how to be the next, maybe Tiger Woods or whatever it is, what's the best way for the listeners to contact you?

Dr. Ferris: Yeah. I always joke about my course being in Santa Barbara. If those of you haven't been here, you should come because it's, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful places in the world. But I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and every day I wake up, I'm like, can't believe I'm here. So I always feel like in my courses, even if you came to my course and took nothing out of it, you would still be like, that's an awesome course, because it's in such a good place. But yeah, if you want to contact me, my website is ferrisorthogroup.com, and then, my Instagram is Dr. Drew Ferris, and that's on Instagram and Facebook. You can also shoot me a personal email at drew.ferris@gmail.com. Those are the best ways to contact me for anybody interested in the course.

Dr. Ardalan: Drew, man, I appreciate you taking the time to be on the podcast. I might have to, you know, dabble a little bit in ortho. So, I might have to make a trip out to Santa Barbara, partly for the course and partly for some late-night fun afterwards. I hear Santa Barbara's a great town. So yeah, we'll see about that golf game you talk about, or lack thereof. I appreciate you taking the time, man. I hope you have a fantastic rest of the day, and I appreciate you being on the Dental Slang Podcast.

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