06 Mar Dr. Gerald Tan shares his journey to the top on Dental Asia
Dr. Gerald Tan seems to have been dealt with a good hand of cards in life: Alumnus of the prestigious Anglo-Chinese School, Founder of Elite Dental Group Singapore, and the youngest and longest-serving President of the Aesthetic Dentistry Society of Singapore (ADSS), just to name a few. But if you were to speak to him, he would contend that life is not just a matter of holding good cards, but also playing a poor hand well and relying on good old-fashioned resilience.
After receiving his Bachelors of Dental Surgery Degree from the Faculty of Dentistry at the National University of Singapore in 2003, Dr. Tan obtained his postgraduate qualifications at the Royal Colleges of Surgery in Sydney and in London. He then went on to be awarded with fellowships at the International College of Dentists (USA), the Pierre Fauchard Academy (USA) and the International Congress of Oral Implantologists (USA).
During his time as President of the ADSS, his travels and overseas internships allowed him to spend considerable time with world-renowned industry legends like Dr. Bill Dorfman (USA), Dr. Daniel Buser (Switzerland) and Dr. Galip Gürel (Turkey), who inspired him and mentored him to focus his practice and postgraduate training on Aesthetic Dentistry and Dental Implantology.
Although he is active with in multiple Aesthetic Dentistry and Dental implantology Associations and Academies globally, he would rather people recognise him first as a kind and honest person, before anything else.
WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES
Dentistry was not Dr. Tan’s first choice of study, it was Medicine. When he was given his second choice – Dentistry – he accepted it thinking he could switch to medicine in the future. But the application was rejected.
He said, “As divine intervention would have it, I grew to love dentistry so much that I am so glad that I did not become a medical doctor! I have many people whom I am grateful for in nurturing me in my undergraduate days, but none more so than Prof. Keson Tan. He is an absolute academic genius who is also passionate about teaching. He made me realise that Dentistry was indeed my higher calling and my God-given purpose on earth. He was the initial spark that lit that fire in me.”
After serving as commissioned dental officer at the Singapore Armed Forces and as a dental officer at the National Dental Centre, Dr. Tan moved into the private sector. In 2013, he founded his own group practice: Elite Dental Group.
When asked about his journey, he said, “There have been so many challenges since day one, I don’t know where to start! The key challenge was (and still is) people management. I used to think that people would be only motivated by money. I was wrong. I had to sit down with each and every member of my team, to understand their needs and wants; and to make sure that they feel heard, respected, and valued. “Business ownership has been such a humbling experience but also fulfilling overall. I’ve learnt that if I take care of my team, my team will take care of the business, and the success will eventually come.”
Dr. Gerald Tan with one of his mentors in Aesthetic Dentistry, Dr. Galip Gurel
A HEART OF GOLD
At Elite Dental Group, technology is key to improving efficiency. Some of the treatment planning processes, such as computer guided implant surgery, is fully digitised. So too, are the patient registration process and tracking of multiple business metrics. In a broader sense, Elite Dental Group believes that the use of technology and artificial intelligence can help bring healthcare costs down, making aesthetic dentistry accessible to more people. At the same time, Dr Tan realises that the human touch matters as well, and the patient experience is more relevant now than ever before.
Despite being one of the only two dental surgeons in Singapore recognised with Membership of the Joint Dental Faculties at The Royal College of Surgeons of England, Dr. Tan said with disarming frankness that academic achievements, while important, have done little except to feed his ego.
He elaborated, “None of my patients have asked me what the acronyms of my qualifications on my name card mean. Although I have sacrificed time, effort, and energy to get these post-graduate qualifications, I am wary of letting them define who I am. In this world of glamour and temporal success, my credibility as a person, and the sacred trust that my team and my patients put in me, matter more. There will always be someone more successful and more well educated than I am. One generation goes, and another generation comes.”
He had not always been this self-aware though. There was a time when running the practice felt like an emotional roller coaster ride and there were moments when he felt like quitting. He explained that when he first set up Elite Dental Group, he was more of a clinician than a business leader, and lacked the skills to manage the people under him well.
Again, he revealed candidly, “Initially, my poor leadership, complacency, and arrogance created a toxic working culture that led to many inefficiencies, staff turnover and disharmony. I had to make difficult decisions – hire and fire – a few rounds of employees, learn from business mentors, and humble myself. Finally, I have a team now that is working together harmoniously and with mutual respect. “It took soul-searching and self-reflection, but I’ve realised that no matter how brilliant I think I am, it’s not just about me anymore. It’s about the team, and that has been humbling.”
Dr. Gerald Tan with one of his implantology mentors, Prof. Daniel Buser
While he is excited about the opportunity to grow either organically or by acquisition, he wants to remind young clinicians that business ownership is not for everyone. Half in jest, he said, “Don’t do it.”
After a pause, he relented, “Unless you know what you’re doing. Think carefully before you start a practice; you must have a solid business plan. You must have deep pockets to weather the storm. Don’t expect to be making money from day one.
“Although it might be tempting to think that your way is the best way, once you start a practice and begin dealing with fellow dental surgeons, dental assistants, front office coordinators, clinic managers, and even the janitor, you will soon realise that you are the least important person in your whole organisation. Your success depends on your ability to lead others. And being the boss doesn’t automatically mean that you know how to lead.”
But he counts himself fortunate, being the sole owner of his practice. He has seen many partnerships, and friendships, get destroyed over money, or differences over how the business is run. To him, it is not worth it. Out of an abundance of caution, he reiterated, “Life is much easier as an employee!”
MEANING IS IN THE SERVICE OF OTHERS
Beneath the bright lights and glamour though, there is real work to be done. Dr. Tan recalled one case which was brought to his attention through his work as a volunteer in helping victims of domestic violence. A woman had sustained multiple fractures in her ribs, leg and facial bones, as well as lost many teeth as a result of being flung three storeys off the balcony of her apartment by her ex-husband.
He recounted, “When I first met her at my practice, she showed me a picture of herself, smiling, before the injuries. I set my mind to reconstructing her smile to what it was, so that she could face the world again. Maybe she would be able to smile again, go for job interviews, and ultimately regain her sense of self-worth and esteem. It was quite an emotional experience.”
When the rehabilitation was complete, the patient was moved to tears; so were Dr. Tan’s nurses, and the entire operating room. There was a sense that being equipped with the skills and knowledge to help in a case like this was a privilege, and he and his team found purpose in being able to change the lives of those in desperate need.
STAYING SHARP, YET MALLEABLE
When he was still young and inexperienced, Dr. Tan had several local mentors – Dr. Ronnie Yap, Dr. Jerry Lim, Dr. Dominic Leung, and Dr. Hwang Yee Cheau – who believed in him and gave him a chance. He is grateful that they took him under their wings, discussing the latest dental developments with him, sometimes well into the wee hours of the morning. Even now, he feels that his work is built upon what they had accomplished.
Nowadays, he encounters young dentists who are frustrated at being unable to apply what they might have learnt at continuing education events at their current places of work, where the equipment is still rather basic. And he believes that it is his turn to encourage them. He reminds them that there’ll always be an opportunity some day to use that knowledge.
“If you really want to practise high-end dentistry, then choose a practice that is progressive and always improving, with good leadership. Clinical and technical know-how are important, but soft skills are also essential. Build rapport with the patient; don’t forget that you’re dealing with a human being. Sometimes all it takes to gain a person’s trust is a caring touch and a listening ear,” he said.
There will be times when caring for a patient means looking past a rigid set of dogma or evidence-based treatment – without doing any harm to the patient – and choosing what is best in the long run.
Call it the butterfly effect, ripple effect, or snowball effect, but Dr. Tan believes in dreaming small instead of dreaming big. His advice is to focus your energy on the people in your immediate sphere of influence. Guide, empower, and inspire them, and they will in turn lead their own teams with the same passion and culture that you have created. In this way, the big dream will naturally come.
Dr. Tan concluded, “A true leader, in my opinion, serves. I firmly believe that the true way to finding meaning in myself is in the service of others. As long as I’m a little bit better today than I was yesterday, I will be happy.”