Are You Healthy Enough to Provide Health Care?
Four areas of focus to regain our own health

Gregory L. Psaltis, DDS

Often  I consider how fortunate I am (and we are) to be in the dental profession. Not only do we see the tangible results of helping people, but we also earn a substantial income on fewer work hours and enjoy prominence in our society, all the while maintaining a high degree of independence from the control of outside influences, unlike our medical colleagues. I have often told people that knowing what I know now, I would not hesitate to enter dentistry again. In fact, I look back on my career decision  and find delight that I made such an intelligent choice when I actually understood so little about it.

As a result of my own biases regarding our profession, I never fail to be amazed that some of my colleagues maintain negative attitudes about dentistry and their practices. In considering why this might be, I have listened to comments from other dentists to see if their complaints might shed light on the dilemma. There are indeed some areas of unhappiness, as expressed by colleagues, that make me believe that they may not be healthy enough to provide the health care they espouse to their clients. I have separated these into four general groupings, each of which could weaken a professional and turn his/her attitude toward the negative. Reviewing these areas may help those who are  frustrated with dentistry and begin the process of renewing their perspectives. For those who enjoy the profession as I do, I would anticipate that this article will make perfect sense.

Without good health, one cannot provide, teach or encourage good health in others. I am not referring here to daily flossing and brushing, but rather the sum of how one conducts
one's life and the result those decisions have on one's outlook. It is my belief that a private practice is the tangible reflection of the dentist who owns it and I would encourage everyone in private practice to consider that simple thought. Is your practice organized, laid back, productive, one big headache, positive, money-driven or any other description that may come to your mind? How would you describe your own practice? How do others, including your clients and co-workers, describe it? Chances are that these characteristics of your practice also describe you! Let's look at the principle areas where unhappy practitioners' lives are out of balance with their own good health.


Two of my long-time professional consultants have told me that they are surprised by the number of long-standing, successful dentists who have confided that they "have to work another 10-15 years" in spite of being 50+ years old. The usual reason: debts of one kind or another. The debt may be children's college expenses, a condo in the mountains or, worse yet, uncontrolled credit cards that have spiralled upwards into the stratosphere of financial burdens. Anyone with debt that is a part of her/his conscious life is probably effected in a negative way by that debt. In short, it forces one to be in service to the debt when at work, rather than in service to the patients.

It is not the intention of this article to suggest what is a good expense and what is not, but I would certainly invite anyone with significant debt to simply ponder the following
question: How different would it be if you went to work because you wanted to be there rather than you "had to be there" to pay off a debt? In my mind, the healthy practitioner is one who is at work to provide a service and enjoy oneself, rather than one who feels it is a burden and/or a necessity to be there to reduce debt. Just which expenses are really justified if they alter your own perception of why you are at work? It seems that some debts, such as school loan repayments, mortgage payments and equipment purchases can hardly be considered detrimental. They are all a part of life and seem unavoidable. However, it may be helpful to consider if that 7000 square foot house  or a new wardrobe is really so important or if a second Mercedes is worth all the amalgams, composites or root canals it will take to pay it off.

Another aspect of this topic is retirement funding. I am hardly the first to suggest that Social Security is unlikely to be available by the time I am eligible for it. I decided long ago to assume that future benefits would be minimal, at best, so that I would need to prepare my own retirement. If Social Security is still paying out when my time comes, all the better, but I'm not counting on it. If you are 50 or over and are not well on your way to funding your retirement, I would think about the advisability of those condos, cars, boats, planes or other expensive toys that may be blocking you from securing your future or postponing your retirement.

Physical Health

We place an expectation on our clients that they will take our advice regarding home
care, fluorides, treatment and all things related to oral health. I don't feel it's reasonable to expect anyone to follow the recommendations of a doctor who is overweight, out of shape, a smoker or in any way physically or emotionally not a model that deserves being followed. I am not referring here to being Arnold Schwarzenneger-- I am referring to looking and feeling good in one's own body. I am referring to being energetic and positive, which is a model that others will want to follow.

Regular exercise need not be a health club nightmare. Many forms of exercise can be made more fun by finding a partner with whom to do it (like racquetball), creating a family activity (like bicycling or walking), turning television time into exercise time (on a NordicTrack machine at home) or taking a book or audiotape along (on a stairmaster or treadmill machine). The key is making the commitment to regular exercise by finding a plan that is effective for you rather than a bother. Simply walking and stretching can make a tremendous difference. The result of feeling better about oneself, the higher level of energy and, perhaps equally important, the model of positive healthy behavior that the professional displays before her/his patients and Team members cannot be overstated.

Attitude Toward Co-workers

In our media-driven society, sound-bites and buzz words abound. Among those words stands one that lives at the core of our practices: Teamwork. If this word strikes you as "New Age," only for "weak managers" or has any other negative connotation, I suggest you revisit the concept. As insurance coverage has made dentistry accessible to more people, our practices now hold the potential for incredible growth. From my own
experience, I know that an ever growing practice cannot be managed well by oneself. Your co-workers are integral parts of your practice. I view the front office personnel as the ears and mouths of our practices, hearing what the patients' reasons are for coming to us and then beginning what we hope will be a long relationship by talking to them and introducing the office philosophy. The chairside personnel are the hands and feet of the practice, accomplishing a myriad of the critical tasks with their hands and controlling the flow of patients through the building. The dental hygienists are the eyes of the practice, more trained to notice how things are going so they can be helpful in seeing things that we, as busy dentists, may conceivably miss. The dentist's role is to be the soul and the brain of the practice, guiding it with the professional knowledge and the compassionate philosophy that makes your practice what it is.

Some dentists try to "do it all" because they either feel that "nobody can do it as well as I can" or they fear that others are trying to usurp their authority. My experience has been that a healthy Team can conduct the business of the office more effectively than I ever could by myself. One only needs to experience some type of personal emergency to discover how effectively Team can handle the practice. The Team only needs the support and permission to do it. This step can certainly can relieve tremendous pressure and anxiety to the dentist and enhance personal health.

Communication Skills with Patients

Another current potential buzz word is Communication. We see seminars and articles, if not books, about this topic, yet I still hear from my patients that the dentists who refer
children in to my practice "didn't explain anything" and "never seemed to understand me." (Their words, not mine). Like every human being, patients come into our practices with a wide variety of agendas, only one of which is their dental health. A shortcoming in our profession is the penchant for overkill in the dental lecturing mode. Many patients simply want to be heard. Until they sense that the office personnel are genuinely hearing them, they will not be able to take in the information being given them, no matter how compassionately or accurately it is delivered. If parents are principally feeling guilt over the decay in their child's mouth, no amount of information will open the lines of communication with them until the overriding guilt can be compassionately addressed. The same is true to financial concerns. To be sure, we are teachers and our principal area of expertise is, of course, dentistry. If we genuinely believe we are healers, however, the process must begin with something other than a high-speed handpiece or a dissertation. The degree of satisfaction and the sense of well-being that springs from the facial expressions of grateful patients can go far toward filling our souls and facilitating our success with technical procedures. This is a payoff for us as practitioners that will never appear on a balance sheet.

The elements discussed here can easily be expanded far beyond the range of this brief discussion. Many books (see suggested reading list) and courses are available and can assist any dentist in achieving greater satisfaction, if not profitability, in a practice. Some colleagues who focus their attention on the "bottom line" of their practice may fail to notice that the old question "When is enough money enough?" is a cornerstone for frustration. If the goal of a practice is primarily financial, it may never be achieved, since
nobody seems to have enough money. If, on the other hand, the goal of the practice is firmly footed in the genuine commitment to quality, in the agreed-upon commitment to making the practice a place where participants (Team members, patients, vendors, etc.) are all treated with compassion and in the belief that the doctor is the role model for all ways of being in the practice, then the result of meeting these goals will be financial success. I can't help wondering to what degree the focus of dental practices has been set in the wrong place-- if we are centered on our wallets as our goal, we may be imitating a dog chasing its tail. On the other hand, if our focus of attention is closer to our hearts, the magical and remarkable result is an abundance of financial success that will exceed any previously hoped-for goal.

The health of our practices is very much dependent upon our own health. The influence we have on our patients and co-workers is more profound in our actions than in our words. It is my firm belief that we must be healthy enough to provide health care to others. If we are saddled with debt, not physically well, at odds with our co-workers or providing the wrong help to our patients, the depth of satisfaction we can find in our practices will be compromised. Recognizing these factors and taking positive steps, even one at a time, will inevitably lead to our own improved health and our ability to provide it.

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