The ups and downs of becoming an award-winning practice
Seb Evans spoke to Gina Vega about how she moved over from Mexico and built an award-winning dental practice
The Dentistry Awards 2018 saw Bishopsgate Dental Care win Best Practice and receive Highly Commended for Best Patient Care.
The team followed this up with the Private Dentistry Awards 2018, winning Best Patient Care, and receiving High Commended for Practice of the Year and Best Team.
Becoming an award-winning practice requires a lot of hard work and dedication. But the journey for Bishopsgate Dental Care’s practice principal, Gina Vega, wasn’t always straightforward.
Finding her passion
Born in Mexico City, Gina says she knew she wanted to be a dentist from eight years old. ‘None of my family were dentists,’ she said.
‘But from my very early years I knew what I wanted to do. Looking back, I used to love going to the dental practice my mum took me to. The smell of the practice was clove oil – and I loved it. I think that enticed me in.’
Her passion for dentistry remained throughout her childhood and by the time she was old enough Gina applied to study at the Universidad Tecnologica de Mexico.
‘It was really fun, I loved it,’ Gina continued. ‘I loved the fact there was a lot of learning about the body, the function, but there was a lot of practical parts, too. The degree is slightly different to the one in the UK.
‘From the very first semester you see patients to do a scale and polish, so you get a lot of practise while you are training. Half of the day you’re in a classroom and the rest of the day you spend with patients.’
As part of her course, Gina did the equivalent of her vocational training year working at a hospital.
‘The oral health of those visiting wasn’t very good. People that come to the university and the hospital to seek treatment are those that don’t have access to private dentistry. In Mexico, the equivalent to the NHS is very limited. The criteria for somebody to be treated by the state in Mexico means these patients are very poor.’
‘It’s basically for people that really need it, don’t have any money or a job, people that are really in most need,’ Gina explained.
‘Other people will pay for dentistry. In Mexico, there are dentists for every single budget.The state will only get you out of pain, then you’re on your own again. The education of going to see the dentist every six months is not as good in Latin America.
‘In Mexico, dentists rent a room and chair at a clinic for a few days or weeks and treat any patients they can encourage to see them. The idea being the dentist pays rent and builds up their own patient base.’
After graduating and spending her vocational year working in a hospital, Gina spent her time building up her patient base while thinking about undertaking a postgraduate degree.
‘Around two years after graduating I decided I wasn’t going to do a postgraduate degree, I was going to do a little bit of everything in dentistry,’ Gina said. ‘Around that time, I also decided to go travelling.
‘Being a dentist is so independent, it’s so flexible, you just don’t book anybody in your diary and off you go. I went with somebody who I didn’t really know at the time.
‘It was a lovely trip, I went for six months and we really became good friends.’
Moving to the big smoke
It was while travelling around Europe, Gina decided to visit London. From her first visit she completely fell in love with the city and decided that, one day, she wanted to live there.
But it was more than the city that persuaded her to stay. ‘After visiting London, we went back to Amsterdam on a night bus,’ Gina explained.
‘The bus broke down a few times during the trip so we arrived very late in Amsterdam. We had to spend a night in the train station. It was the next day we caught a train going from Amsterdam to Copenhagen.
‘It was on this train I met my future husband. We just started chatting on the train, and I found out he was English and from London. We exchanged emails and I said to him I’ll come back to London in a few months, I had decided I wanted to finish my travelling and spend another month in London. A year later and we were living together.’
Gina started the process of getting a visa by getting a job as a dental nurse. The first practice she started working at was part of a dental corporate. The people there helped her to get a working visa so she could stay in the UK by her own rights and work while requalifying.
‘It was very frustrating working as a dental nurse,’ Gina pointed out.
‘I remember thinking I should be doing that, that’s my job, while watching the dentist. Of course, you have good and bad dentists, sometimes I felt I could do a lot better job than some. It took two and a half years to requalify, but I was very determined. I knew I had to do it.’
Requalifying is a long process. The GDC has a list of things it needs from an overseas dentist, one of which is to prove your English is sufficiently good.
Once that exam is passed, the GDC says you are on its waiting list. The dental regulator will let you know three months before your first international qualifying exam the date of your exam. Gina had to wait almost a year before she was called.
From exam one to exam two, the waiting time drops, then from exam two to three, it drops again. ‘In all it took about two and a half years,’ Gina said. ‘But I couldn’t not do it. I had to do it, this was my passion, I’m not Gina Vega if I’m not a dentist.’
Once Gina had passed all her exams she started practising as a dentist in London.
‘Thankfully, the human body is the same, the subjects are the same,’ Gina pointed out. ‘So, requalifying was quite straight forward.
‘What I couldn’t grasp was the concept that I was in a first-world country and I came from a third-world country, the dentistry levels I had when I qualified and practised in Mexico were a lot higher than the ones I was practising here under the NHS.
‘I haven’t worked in the NHS for 12 years, so I don’t know what it’s like now.
‘But back then it was quite shocking that people were doing things very quickly, not always making the best decisions for the patients, but more to get them out quickly and get another one through the door.’
When she got the chance, Gina moved over to private dentistry. This meant she was not running late anymore and could build up a rapport with her patients.
Things were working out really well for Gina at this time. She was working 2.5 days a week, five minutes from her house, she had just had her second child and felt like she was enjoying life.
‘When my daughter was about eight months old, things were going well with my husband and he suggested we invest some money in a business,’ Gina said.
‘The most obvious business to invest in was a dental practice. I said no, not at all, I was happy and my baby wasn’t even a year old. I enjoyed my life as it was. But as she thought about it more, she started asking herself why not? I started looking locally for practices, but nothing was on the market,’ Gina continued.
‘Then driving certain distances from my house, nothing was on the market. I thought nothing was coming to the market nearby, so I decided to search across all of London, but still an easy commute for me (45 minutes to an hour from where I live), which is when I found Bishopsgate Dental Care.’
On the verge of bankruptcy
Purchasing a dental practice can be stressful at the best of times and, unfortunately for Gina, the person selling this practice was not the most honest.
He owed lots of money to lots of companies and people. And the worst bit was the owner did not tell Gina anything about it – he sold her a practice that was bankrupt. Thankfully for me, we did find out he was on the verge of bankruptcy,’ Gina pointed out.
‘When we bought the practice, we were well protected with documents showing this practice now belonged to me, and none of the past debts are my debts. The majority of the equipment was on lease, so I had debt collectors knocking on the door threatening to take the dental chair. We had people on the telephone, it was horrible. We had to build back up our credit because he had cheated so many companies.
‘Some companies would only accept cash upfront for six months before they believed I was different. We had patients caught in the middle of treatments with lab technicians apologising, saying they wouldn’t give us crowns because the previous owner owed them thousands.’
This went on for about a year after Gina had bought the practice and the business lost money over the first three years. Gradually, as the practice grew, Gina slowly started building a bigger team and refurbishing the practice.
‘Probably in year four we decided we needed a decontamination room, a little more storage, that’s when we managed to put some money into the business,’ Gina explained. ‘We did a little bit of refurbishing and moved some walls. We now have a stockroom, a decontamination room, a staff room – we have a practice that can function nicely, everything runs smoothly.’
‘I believe that when you reach a level, you need to push yourself to the next one,’ Gina said, when asked why she started entering the Dentistry Awards.
It was dental coaches Chris Barrow, Ashley Latter and Tracy Stuart that encouraged Gina to start putting together an entry.
By 2017, Gina invested in her team, refurbished the practice and had a growing patient database.
‘In 2017 I entered a clinical case at the Aesthetic Dentistry Awards and I was shortlisted as a finalist,’ Gina said. ‘That gave me a little bit of a push.’
Despite not winning, being shortlisted gave Gina and the practice an incentive to push a little more, which led to them being listed as a winner at the Dentistry Awards and the Private Dentistry Awards.
Gina said: ‘The night was amazing. I had already gone to the awards and not won, this time I was there just to enjoy the night and celebrate that we were finalists.
‘Suddenly we heard our name and everybody screamed. Since then we’ve had patients come in and say they know we’ve won an award. I think it’s a very good way to present your practice – an award-winning practice.
‘It gives confidence to patients to come and meet us. I think the awards are a great way to start pushing yourself.’