Sarah C. Shoaf, DDS, MEd, MS, DABO – Recipe for Great Smiles

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What can you tell us about your background? 

I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but my parents moved to Durham, North Carolina before I started high school. After high school in Durham, I went to Wake Forest University in a 3-2 program with the Bowman Gray Physician Assistant program, so my undergraduate degree was a BS in Allied Medical Health Professions with a Physician Assistant major.

I worked as a PA for 3 years in Philadelphia at a small regional hospital, then 3 years in New Orleans at their VA Medical Center. While in New Orleans, I got a Masters of Education degree, intending to find a faculty position in a PA program. But that was the time that President Ronald Reagan was pulling all the funding from the PA programs, and many were folding, so none could offer me a long-term position. I took this as a bad omen for the PA profession (which has since been disproven), and went to dental school at UNC. I did well in dental school, attaining Omicron Kappa Upsilon (OKU) dental honor society status and winning a Dentist-Scientist government grant for 5 years of study. I chose Eastman Dental Center in Rochester, New York for my Orthodontic specialty training, and also obtained a Masters degree in Biochemistry/Genetics. My intent was to select a position in a dental school or medical school faculty to do both clinical orthodontics and work with craniofacial anomaly patients. My dream job opened up at Wake Forest University Medical Center, and I was on faculty as their orthodontist from 1992 to 2009, teaching dental residents as well as medical and PA students. While there, I also developed expertise in sleep apnea appliances, Invisalign treatment, and forensic odontology. But private practice called out to me, and I went to work in Mount Airy, a small town north of Winston-Salem, where I worked for a friend for 2 years before deciding to go out on my own. My present practice, Salem Smiles Orthodontics, opened January 2012, and we now have almost 900 active patients.

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Why did you decide to focus on orthodontics? 

I selected dental school as a way to get into orthodontics to be able to work with craniofacial anomaly patients. So, I had pre-selected orthodontics prior to getting into dental school, and focused on that goal from the start.

How long have you been practicing, and what systems do you use? 

I graduated from Eastman Dental Center in 1992, and have practiced continuously since that time. I am a simple practitioner, using non-self-ligating appliances for most treatment, but really like the Invisalign® (Align Technology, Inc.) system. I was part of the first Invisalign training session on the East Coast in 1999, and stayed with them through their formative growing pains to their present excellent product. In fact, if I could have an entire practice of only Invisalign patients, I would be most happy!

What training have you undertaken? 

I outlined my BS, PA certificate, MEd, DDS, and MS above, but also attained Diplomate Status in the American Board of Orthodontics in 2003, which less than 25% of practicing orthodontists can claim. In addition, I worked with the NC Center for Cleft and Craniofacial Deformities from 1992 to 2009, and am an active member of the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association. I took the Forensic Odontology course from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1996 and am called upon by NC State and regional law enforcement for dental identifications and bite mark identifications. My sleep expertise is self-taught, beginning while as a graduate student in Rochester, and I am continuing the fabrication of oral sleep appliances with the Wake Forest Medical Center sleep center and local referrals.

Who has inspired you? 

Dr. Bill Proffit of UNC was very inspirational during my dental school days, urging me to use my talent for teaching. Also, my father has been inspiring while I opened my business, as he never thought I’d be out on my own working in my own practice.

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What is the most satisfying aspect of your practice?

I like seeing the look on the patients’ faces when they see their “before” and “after” pictures at their retainer placement. They get so proud of the changes! I am also very proud of my craniofacial patients who obtain a solid functional occlusion when nature did not give them one.

Professionally, what are you most proud of? 

I am proudest of starting my own practice at age 56. After a long run in academia, I had to learn a lot of business and find a way to surround myself with good people who could do the things I’m weakest in. I am also proud of all the teaching I’ve done to dental, medical school, and PA school residents over the years. I hope I’ve made a difference to some of them.

What do you think is unique about your practice?

It is a “new” practice, but I am an experienced clinician, so very different from others in the area. We also do a lot of Invisalign treatment, which I am very excited about and try to steer patients to that modality whenever I can, as I believe it is a superior product. And there is no one doing forensic dentistry in the northwest section of NC beside myself. My staff members laugh because I know American Sign Language from my tenure in Rochester and in craniofacial patient circles, and also know Spanish, so I can get along with a wide variety of patients.

What has been your biggest challenge?

Starting a practice from scratch at a late age. I had the experience and the money saved but had to learn a lot about business practices along the way. But I found excellent attorneys, accountants, design, construction, and equipment people to help me, so that made it a lot easier!

What would you have become if you had not become a dentist?  

I’m awfully good with my hands, and took a number of culinary courses at Guilford Tech Community College. With only one or two more courses, I would have had my Associates Degree with a Baking Certificate. Even now, I do wedding cakes for friends and family and aspire to bake wonderful desserts for high-end restaurants.

What is the future of orthodontics and dentistry?

I firmly believe that we will all be doing just Invisalign-type treatment in the future, and that wires and bonded brackets will go the way of the hand-welded bands on every tooth. It is just so much easier for the patients and much easier to clean.

What are your top tips for maintaining a successful practice?  

Surround yourself with good people to do the things you do not have expertise in or to counsel you objectively in the areas where you do have skills. Paying for good lawyers, accountants, lab work, equipment service, IT, and supplies are worth it in the long run. I would especially tell people to get a professionally-designed logo to base all your marketing and learn to “brand” your office in all types of media, particularly the Internet.

What advice would you give to budding orthodontists? 

Take more senior orthodontists out for lunch, and pick their brains. Who knows — one of them may be impressed and offer you a job or a practice!  And don’t be afraid to spend a lot of money to get “the good stuff” when opening your practice. It takes a lot more time and money to throw out the old stuff and buy new equipment. The last advice I’d give is to not “settle” for hiring mediocre staff. Good staff members are worth their weight in gold and will constantly make your life much easier. It is so worth using that first 3-month trial employment to be sure you have the right people in the right position. Be patient when hiring — don’t take the first ones who show up for interviews!  But know what you are looking for.

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What are your hobbies, and what do you do in your spare time? 

My husband, Alan Miller, is an underwater photographer, so we have been around the world to go scuba diving in all sorts of exotic locations (Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas, Australia (5 times), Raja Ampat in Indonesia, the Cayman Islands, British and American Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Panama, etc.). When we are not diving, I make jewelry with lots of fun and colorful semi-precious stones, some of which I find on our travels. Also, I am a big Wake Forest Demon Deacon supporter — we try to go to all the men’s basketball and football games, and support all the teams, especially women’s golf. I also play golf with the Executive Women’s Golf Association Piedmont Triad Chapter, and have gone to regional and national competitions within that group on several occasions. I keep a sourdough starter and make artisan bread weekly, which goes to a local restaurant and wine store. My husband and I own part of the wine store, and do weekly tastings to add to our 2,000+ bottle wine cellar in our 122-year-old home.

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