Published March 17, 2009
Volume 17, Number 3

Practice Is Perfect for Francine Kitagawa, DDS

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

When Dr. Francine Kitagawa opened her Hacienda practice, Gateway Dental Care, in November 2007, she had an advantage most of her peers did not: experience. A member of the class of 2000 at UCSF Dental School, Kitagawa deliberately inserted a few years of working as an associate in other dental offices before establishing her own.

“Many new dentists jump into their own practice after graduating, but I was more cautious,” she observes. “There is a whole learning curve after dental school. It’s always different in the professional office—the pace is quicker, there is newer technology.” Kitagawa’s approach allowed her to concentrate first on “the dentistry part,” honing her skills in the real world. It also gave her the opportunity to see how other dentists run their practice. “I learned a lot of business dos and don’ts, things we don’t learn in school—insurance, managing employees, and so on. I’m really happy I waited before starting my own practice. I skipped a lot of start-up problems.”

Still, Kitagawa has fond memories of dental school, most aspects of which have never figured prominently in the public eye. For example, preparing for the licensing exams has an unexpected twist that most outside the profession would never think about. The national boards include three hands-on procedures: a cleaning and two different fillings. All candidates have to furnish their own patients, and they often go to great lengths to ensure their participation.

“You spend a lot of time looking for the perfect patient,” Kitagawa recalls. The students have been known to put up their patients in a hotel the night before the test. They also need to recruit three back-up patients and an assistant, who also plays a critical role. Experienced exam assistants, familiar with what the examiners are looking for, are highly sought-after. For that one day, they can command many times more than their normal hourly wage.

The investment in this kind of preparation should not be a surprise, considering that the tests are the culmination of four years of intense classroom and clinical study. As Kitagawa points out, “It is more difficult to pass the hands-on exam when the situation is not ideal.”

Dental school was both a predictable and a last-minute decision as Kitagawa was finishing up her undergraduate work at UC San Diego, where “almost everyone was pre-med,” she says. Always strong in math and science, she had thought about going into engineering, but her father suggested medical or dental school instead. Even with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, he had gone through cycles of expansions and lay-offs before finally transitioning into the more stable computer engineering field. He wanted his daughter to have a more secure profession. “I was good with my hands and pretty artistic, the basic requirements for dentistry, and my own dentist, who is also my cousin, really encouraged me,” Kitagawa comments.

Studying and living in San Francisco proved to be really good choices. It was her first time away from home in San Diego, but she quickly became part of an extended family, 80 fellow students who spend all four years in school together as a single class. The first two years were primarily coursework, “nonstop homework, tests, and finals,” followed by the much more clinical third and fourth years. Throughout, she enjoyed getting to know the diverse array of classmates, forging lifetime friends.

It was as school was winding down that the relationship with her future husband, Ronald Kitagawa, an editor at the San Jose Mercury News, began to develop.

They had originally met at an Asian-American business mixer. He saw her first, but he did not get her phone number.  Ever the journalist, when he wanted to see her again he called on his network of sources to help locate her, and sent her a card. Francine did not respond immediately, but when she needed to find a patient for the state boards, she emailed him to see if he was qualified. He was not, but they started dating. Two months later, he decided to join her and her mother on a post-graduation trip to China. It was the acid test for both—“when you travel with someone, especially when your mom’s along, it’s either going to work out or not,” she quips—and a few months later they were engaged. “It was quick, we just knew.”

The couple married in 2002 and soon started looking for a house to buy. They came out to Pleasanton and were quickly captivated by the small-town feel. “I love all the greenery, it reminds me a little of Toronto,” where she and her family had lived before moving to San Diego when she was 12, Kitagawa says. Once settled as a Pleasanton resident, she took advantage of the flexibility working in other dental offices to accomplish another pre-practice mission, having a family. Just 13 months apart, the couple’s two children, Kaitlyn and Keith, were born in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Now ages four and three, they  attend a nearby preschool. “It’s a great arrangement, and my in-laws, who live in Walnut Creek, help out a lot.”

With her own practice, Kitagawa also balances her schedule to accommodate her family’s needs.  “A lot of women go into dentistry because of the flexibility. That’s one of the pluses. I’m open late for patients Tuesdays and Thursdays, and every other Saturday.” When she is not working, “it’s pretty much taking kids to play dates, birthday parties, etc. That’s my life, that and dentistry,” she relates.

Eighteen months into her practice, business is going well, and there has not been much fallout from the economic volatility. “I opened my practice during a recession so I didn’t feel it. Now I have more patients, and they continue to refer others, so it keeps on building. Even in my first year I broke even,” Kitagawa comments. She also really enjoys her work environment. “I’ve worked in several other places in the Bay Area, but here in the Tri-Valley the people are the nicest patients ever, and that makes a big difference. I’m happy going to work!”

The same care and planning put into starting a business shows up in Kitagawa’s approach to the newest dental techniques. “I want things to last, so I am cautious. I use things that are new but have a proven track record.”  Teeth whitening has shown itself to be an effective marketing tool. “Once patients have finished with whitening, they start thinking about other things that may not look right. They are also more aware of their teeth, and they start taking better care of them.”

The Gateway Dental Care office includes two part-time assistants, both “very caring and thoughtful” previous colleagues. “I worked with Vanessa for a long time. She really encouraged me to open up my own practice. I also worked with Maria, who had taken a break to have children, and then called me when she was ready to go back to assisting. Jerry does a wonderful job taking care of patient scheduling and dental insurance needs.”

Kitagawa’s office is located at 4825 Hopyard Road, F17. For more information, visit www.pleasanton-dental.com or call (925) 598-9825.


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