DSOPro Exclusive

Lightwave’s Director of Clinical Support Discusses Leadership Development and Fostering Community Among Group Practices

After practicing dental hygiene for 32 years, Sandi Synstad became Lightwave Dental’s Director of Clinical Support to foster community within the organization, leadership training, and vendor relationships.

DSOPro: How did you become interested in dental? What is your background?

I’m very task driven, and I thought dental hygiene seemed like it would be an amazing career. So right out of high school I went into a dental hygiene program. I absolutely loved it and found the office of my dreams in Northern Virginia, Smiles for Centerville, at 21 years old and stayed there for almost 32 years. I would probably still be there if they hadn’t partnered with Lightwave Dental in 2016.

When that happened, I thought, “We have partnered with corporate dentistry.” I was a little bit unnerved by that, but then learned by working with Lightwave as a clinical hygienist that what they had told me was correct: my clinical care did not change. My doctors and I had full clinical autonomy in what we did within our practice and the patient care we delivered. All that changed was insurance negotiations and HR type work.

I would probably still be in that office seeing patients, but my daughter was expecting a baby who would have a lot of health problems, and I realized that working chairside wouldn’t allow me to give her all the help she needed. So, I reached out to Justin Jory, our CEO of Lightwave Dental, and asked if he had a spot for me on the management team. In 2018, I stepped away from practice and went to work for Lightwave Dental, and that was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I left my patients, my work family, everything I’d ever known. I mean, I went from being a newlywed in that office to two of my five grandchildren being born during the span I worked there. It was a long time. I went to see a life coach because I thought my patients would not make it without me, but he told me, “Instead of influencing this small group of people in your office, you’ll be able to influence a larger group of people and you’ll just have a larger team.” And he was exactly right. Instead of working with 10 hygienists at Smiles for Centerville, I now work with almost 300 hygienists, and it’s been an incredible journey. I absolutely love what I do.

DSOPro: How did that go? What did you need to change to transition from clinical to administration?

When I first started with Lightwave, we had only 12 offices. Now we’ve grown to 89 offices. I went from scaling teeth on a Friday to opening a computer on Monday, and it was challenging. I didn’t know how to use Excel or create a PowerPoint. My kids could not believe I didn’t know how those worked, but I didn’t learn those things in high school. We didn’t even have computers.

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So, I had to learn how to look at and process metrics. And learn how to go into a practice as a peer and coach. One of my goals in life is to be a “true servant leader.” To have them see me as someone who can really help them, not someone who’s telling them what to do.

I start by sharing a little bit about me, then learn a little bit about them, and then say, “What can I do to help you? That’s what I’m here for, to help you be better clinicians and give you the tools you need.” And so far, it’s gone really well. I feel like I have a great relationship with our hygienists and doctors, and I’m very proud of that.

DSOPro: What does your role as Director of Clinical Support entail?

When I first started, I was the Hygiene Coach. In 2022, I was promoted to the Director of Clinical Support. So, anything that Lightwave does clinically, I have my hands on. I produce a clinical newsletter once a month for all our clinical teams that contains continuing education (CEs), OSHA updates, interesting articles, and welcomes new providers. It covers great information on new products and announcements, anything that’s new that I think would be interesting to know.

I create a Monday Update every week for our hygiene team that goes out at 9:00 a.m. each Monday. That is very specific to our hygienists and talks about our metrics and our CEs. It also lists my schedule, so they know where I’ll be visiting.

I also work with our doctors and the Chief Dental Officer (CDO), Dr. Clifton Cameron. We devise our educational pathways for the year. This year we have pathways on implants, endodontics, restorative dentistry, Invisalign, and leadership. I assist our doctors with securing spots in the academies, and make sure their travel is taken care of, etc. I usually attend these meetings as the face of Lightwave, and to say, “We appreciate you being here.” They are private courses, and it’s super fun to be involved in coaching our dentists to be better providers and deliver better care.

I also help oversee compliance and ensure our offices remain compliant. And I work on some procurement, helping our finance team decide on what we’re purchasing and making sure we get the best prices if we’re looking for a new Cavitron or a new Midmark autoclave. It’s a fun job.

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DSOPro: What do you like doing the most in your role?

My passion is hygiene coaching. I love interacting and visiting with our hygienists and learning how I can better support them.

I worked for an amazing practice that provided me with so much incredible training for over 30 years. I utilize all that training and my experience to help our teams.

DSOPro: How would you explain the difference between your organization and a DSO?

As a dental leadership organization (DLO), we believe that the dentists are the true leaders in their practices. They make all clinical decisions; they lead their teams. We’re just there to support them. We provide HR and RCM support to help them focus on being amazing leaders in their practices.

We hold a leadership conference once a year, Lightwave Launch, with our practice managers, doctors, hygiene leads, and dental assistant leads. We don’t really talk about dentistry there. We talk about how we can help them be a better leader and effectively lead their teams to be successful. That’s where the DLO difference comes in. We believe that we are a team of amazing leaders who are doing better in dentistry.

DSOPro: Is there a top hygienist leader in each office?

Some offices have hygiene leads, some don’t. It depends on how big the team is and on what that doctor wants for their practice. Our bigger offices with 8 to 10 hygienists definitely have a hygiene lead in place. Some of our platforms are a little bit of a mini-DSO, so most of them have a hygiene lead in place.

DSOPro: Tell us about the structure of the organization.

We have 220 doctors in both GP and specialty offices. Between 20 and 25 of our offices are specialty practices, with the remaining being GP offices.

Our Lightwave support team is in place to provide them with what they need to be successful from the HR team to payroll, RCM, and marketing. We have the support to help with their success.

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DSOPro: What types of community-building do you promote within and outside the organization?

This is my favorite topic and “community” is my favorite word! We are a community of practices all working together for a common goal. We build community in so many amazing ways. We participate with Smiles for Life yearly, which is a children’s charity program that our whole community is invited to participate in. We have about 40 offices participating this year, working together with the common goal of raising money for charity.

We sponsor a mission trip yearly. I love to look at our mission trip pictures. Usually, 20-25 people from 15 to 20 offices go on the mission trip together to provide dental care to underprivileged people in Third World countries. Lightwave provides 10 scholarships and then others join in, paying for themselves or a doctor may pay for some of their team.

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We also hold a Hygiene Rodeo once a year to bring our hygiene community together so they can meet and learn.

HygieneRodeo2023-053 pic

Our CE pathways (endo, implant, etc.) are community driven. The implant training is provided by Dr. Todd Engel at the Engel Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina. When Dr. Engel hosts the Lightwave Implant Academy, 15 or 20 of our doctors attend a community dinner one night to meet and learn from each other. Many times, the doctors keep in touch with each other after being at the CEs together.

We partner with other amazing people, like Kerr Endo, which leads our endo academy. We have a leadership coach who trains doctors on that. In addition, our doctors receive a CE budget every year they can use to get other training they need.

Plus, we have a Spirit Week at Christmas where we dress up on certain days, a Halloween costume contest, and a 4th of July Patriotic Day where we share our photos and tag each other. We try to develop a fun, or “funergenic” (the Carolinas Dentist word for it) atmosphere by bringing energy and fun into doing things together. I think we do a really great job of building community through all the events and activities we host.

DSOPro: How are you addressing the challenges of the hygienist shortage?

Our offices are very well-equipped with technology. Each office has iTero scanners and Cavitrons, which is a great draw. We have great standards of care, which I think is also a draw. I would want to work for a practice that wants me to maintain my patients extremely well.

We’ve also opened our Hygiene Rodeo to outside hygienists for the second year. If you see our social media posts and think, “I’d love to learn more about what the Lightwave community is like,” you can attend the Hygiene Rodeo. We use that as a talent acquisition opportunity to show candidate hygienists exactly how amazing the Lightwave community is.

We also offer referral bonuses to our team members. If they have a hygienist friend who would like to join one of our practices, we give a referral bonus to the hygienist who brought them to the table for us. The candidate may receive a sign-on bonus as well.

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DSOPro: When it comes to procurement, what do you look for in vendor relationships?

Our core values are caring, honesty, hardworking, and growth minded. We like to work with vendors who share our values. One of the most important and helpful things for me is vendors helping us with education. We’re huge on education. So far, I’ve offered over 200 hours of CE to our offices in 2024.

We appreciate our vendors offering to support our teams. For example, when someone said they wanted to learn about guided biofilm therapy (GBT), I reached out to my EMS Dental contact, and she said, “I’d be happy to have a call for anyone who wants to participate.” So, we hopped on a call and did an hour of CE with almost 30 hygienists joining. This happens all the time; providing the education our teams want to help them be successful.

DSOPro: Would you like to add anything regarding the future of the company and continuing to grow?

Lightwave has an exciting growth plan for the next few years. We are proud of our doctor retention rate, and I think it’s because they do feel cared about. They understand that we want to further educate them, make them better leaders, and for them to be successful within their practice. I’m very proud our doctors feel that way.

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About Sandi Synstad

Synstead,Sandi headshot

After dedicating nearly 32 years to clinical hygiene, Sandi made a seamless transition to management at Lightwave Dental in 2018. While her passion for delivering top-notch patient care remains unwavering, she also empowers her teams with a wide range of tools and techniques to stay at the forefront of dentistry. Beyond the clinic, Sandi fosters a vibrant community at Lightwave, encouraging both enjoyment and philanthropy within the field of dentistry. Her greatest source of pride? The unwavering support she offers her teams.

Sandi and her husband currently reside in The Plains, VA. They are proud parents to two children and doting grandparents to five grandchildren, three of whom live in Williamsburg, VA, and two in Charlotte, NC. You’ll find her visiting them often!

Lightwave Dental

Lightwave Dental is committed to supporting our dental teams by doing things the right way with a tight focus on high quality, core values, and taking care of our people. We care about our patients and our teams, and we protect clinical autonomy at all costs.

For dentists just starting their career, those building a growing dental practice, or for those thinking about retirement, Lightwave is here to lead the way. We partner with top dentists to help you reach your growth goals with less financial risk and better business support.

Our approach preserves your unique identity and the legacy of your private practice while providing your team with best-practice business services, state-of-the-art technology and leadership training that fuels success. Together we form a powerful partnership to lead happy teams that improve the lives of patients and our communities.

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