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A California orthodontist had a thriving practice -- then the recession hit.
When Donna Galante, DO, DDS, was preparing for college she had designs on becoming a pharmacist. Why not? Her father was a pharmacist in Philadelphia, working for a large pharmaceutical company.
But he had other ideas in mind for his daughter.
“He told me I can go to college but I can’t become a pharmacist,” Galante recalls.
When she asked why, he told her that one day there wouldn’t be independent pharmacists; that they will all be working for companies. He wanted her to be her own boss. That meant a career either in medicine or dentistry.
During an eight-week winter break externship with a female pediatric resident at Reading Memorial Hospital in her sophomore year, Galante made a decision: she would focus on dentistry.
“I literally spent eight weeks with her from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, and I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor after that,” Galante explains. “I didn’t think I could handle my patients all having these illnesses. And I know that sounds like a very shallow reason, but my goal was to a career that had a lifestyle attached to it.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Decisions and Challenges
While in dental school Galante worked two part-time jobs. She worked two nights each week for a general dentist, and on Saturdays worked for an orthodontist. It was the latter job that most caught her interest.
“I loved the orthodontic part,” she says. “It was a lot of kids, and it was really fun.”
Encouraged by the orthodontist, she applied for and was accepted into the orthodontics program at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where she met her future husband, Paul Cater. And after eight years practicing in King of Prussia, PA, they moved to northern California where they’ve run a collaborative practice for the past 22 years.
The benefits of working together, Galante says, far outweigh the challenges.
“We have four locations, and if I’m in one office and I’m like, it was crazy, this and this happened, he totally gets it,” Galante says. “It’s not like you come home talking about how bad your day was, because you’re an attorney and your husband is an accountant, and it’s like, oh no, my day was much worse. Or you just don’t understand what I have to go through during tax season. We understand exactly what’s going on, and I think that helps.”
Their patients, she explains, like the family approach. Galante tells patients that because she and her husband were trained at the same school, they’re getting two sets of eyes; paying for one orthodontist but getting two.
“There’s stuff that doesn’t get missed,” she adds. “We’re on top of things.”
Crashing, Then Recovering
In 2008, with their practice growing, Galante and her husband purchased a large office building to house their expanding practice. And almost simultaneously, the economy tanked.
“And it went south in a hurry,” Galante recalls. “We went from a full schedule of patients to half schedule. We lost about 30% of our income in one year.”
It also came at a time when Galante, who had been practicing for 22 years, was ready to back off and perform more of an administrative role. Those plans changed overnight, and she and her husband recognized they had to make some dramatic changes or they could find themselves out of business.
“Everybody was struggling and saying, ‘I’ll sell you braces for half price,’” she says. “The price points were becoming so ridiculous that you might as well close up shop. We thought there had to be something we could do that would set us apart.”
They decided to focus on Invisalign, aligners that are a clear alternative to metal braces. They used their limited resources that remained to market to adults who always wanted better teeth or a better smile, but had never been offered a clear alternative like Invisalign. They also took some risks.
“People would come in, and they didn’t have all the money for a down payment,” Galante says. “They only had a limited amount to put down, and we’d say okay, fine, and put them on a payment plan.”
The strategy worked.
“We became the Invisalign orthodontist,” Galante says. “It took us 18 months to regain our lost income, and we’ve been on the upstroke ever since.”
Spreading the Word
The work Galante and her husband were doing did not go unnoticed.
“[People at Invisalign] saw this little office that was doing so many cases a year, and it was like, what are these people doing?” she recalls.
Galante became a key opinion leader for the company. She travels frequently—most recently to China and Australia—giving workshops and instructional seminars on Invisalign. And she makes these trips because she recognizes the big picture.
“I know how much Invisalign has helped our practice,” she explains. “But the bigger picture is that it’s a great thing for patients. I know that if I go to Australia and I lecture to a bunch of orthodontists, there may be 20 percent of the audience that gets the passion like we got, for whatever reason. Eventually those doctors are going to be treating thousands of patients and giving them the smiles they’ve always dreamed of.”
That’s a life-changing experience for a lot of people, Galante says—patients, as well as orthodontists and their staff, who are excited to go back to their offices and begin working with the clear alternative.
“It’s pretty cool,” she adds.
Three years ago Galante published “It’s All About Millimeters: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact in Your Business and Life.” She recognized that in dentistry as in life small things can have a huge impact.
“When we were making the changes in our practice we thought, what can we do a millimeter at a time to make these changes?” Galante says. “It mushroomed into this entire book.”
And became part it the practice’s tagline: Changing smiles, changing lives.
“And that’s what it’s all about.”