A Message of Hope

Don Deems, DDS


There are few dentists I talk to these days who are excited about the future of dentistry, except those poised to financially benefit from a lack of direction, satisfaction, and vision for our practices and profession.

For those of you who have been in practice at least a few years by now (I’m approaching 30 years myself), you’ve seen the many changes taking place; almost rivaling the pace of technological changes we are seeing in other areas of science. Yet, with this scorching pace of technological advances, the challenge to find satisfaction and fulfillment is greater than ever. As a professional, personal, and business coach in dentistry throughout the past 14 years, I hear of the frustrations of these challenges expressed by my dentist clients, and my own personal experience as a practicing dentist runs parallel to the findings from studies completed by our own professional associations. I also see and hear of alcohol and substance use/abuse and other needs for escape from the daily struggles of practicing dentistry. Most young dental graduates now begin with a heavy load of debt, and they have limited options available to them to deal with this challenge.

So now you know, this Viewpoint article isn’t going to be for the weak of heart. Telling one’s truth can be a lonely road, but it is a sure path to positive change. It is my hope that you will be inspired to take action and to take an honest look within yourself; this in itself can be a lonely and difficult task, and for some, painful. In fact, it is my opinion that this truthful look inside oneself is the most important exercise a professional person could ever take.

Yes, it’s not just a “new world”; it’s a “rapidly changing world,” one that is rocking the foundation of even the most savvy and experienced dentists among us. Change is indeed the only constant. No longer can we only give our best and finest dentistry to those who come to us and then expect our practice to grow; it takes so much more. Even more, what it does take is changing so rapidly that a one-year business plan is too little to work with and guide us, as we have to constantly adjust to patient, client, and consumer demands; third-party interveners; dental board rules and regulations; and the many governmental impositions that must be dealt with on an increasing scale and breadth.

What will this “rapidly changing world” hold? No one knows for sure, although there is one thing for sure: things will never be the same—not even the same as last year. Unfortunately, our professional associations are also doing their best to keep up with change, and in my opinion, not so well. Dissatisfaction is at an all-time high, and many dentists who are irritated, angry, frustrated, and even irate are asking tough questions and wondering what their reasons are for even belonging to these associations. The questions that I hear constantly being asked is, “Why should I belong?” and “What’s in it for me?”

State, regional, and national meetings continue to see decreased attendance, as more and more dentists choose to receive their continuing education (CE) online, in journals, and from other lecture and study club sources. An increasing number of companies have shown up to offer CE credits to those willing to pay the fees. Long gone is the once healthy camaraderie and professionalism that was the hallmark of our noble profession; it now exists in only the smallest of circles, destined to disappear when the dentists who have cultivated them take down their shingle and move into retirement.

Awaken the Optimist
I loved Dr. Damon Adams’ Editor’s Page (Dentistry Today, January 2014) when he brought up the subject of a new year being upon us and asking us to think about taking a closer look at our own physical and mental health. In his brief editorial comments, he asked some provocative questions and offered his insights for us to consider. What caught my attention was how none of his comments were directed at learning new techniques or discovering quick fixes for making more money.

Sure, we are in the business of dentistry, and we have the opportunity to make a nice living, contribute to our community in a meaningful way, and a whole host of other opportunities this great profession offers us. But what are we thinking and feeling when we are not feeling so great about dentistry? Even more, where do we turn and what do we do to influence the course of events in our practices and in our profession? If there were ever a need for a call to action, it is now. Waiting until next month is ill advised, and even worse, waiting for someone else to do it is pointless.

Looking in All the Wrong Places
In my experience, most dentists look in the wrong place to find their happiness, peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction. Taking course after course to achieve mastery may be highly beneficial, but will it bring you everything that you want? Adding new technology may allow you to provide services you haven’t been able to provide and even improve the quality of the care you provide, but will it bring happiness to you? What about just hiring someone to tell you what to do—will that make you happy?

The hardest place to look, and the place most overlooked, is inside each of us.

What is true of human nature is that the greatest motivator for making change is pain. Pain can take many forms: physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, intellectual; or pain stemming from fear, greed, and more. When an individual is in pain, that person is most apt to do something about it until the pain is gone, at least. For most, when the pain is gone, life returns to the way it was before the pain, and there is usually little lasting change. When the pain returns, a solution is again sought, and the cycle returns. Few people are able to get out of this cycle, but those who do gain so much more. Think of your own patients. The ones who return consistently for preventive care and take care of their dental needs promptly have a completely different future for their dental health than the ones who only come when they have pain. Yet, even though they may know differently, the ones who come in when they are in pain mostly choose to repeat that cycle. As a result, their lives continue on their chosen path, ultimately leading to deeper, more complex problems, problems that could be avoided with taking a different approach. And how are we, in our own lives, doing things differently? Are we waiting until the “pain” is unbearable before we do anything? What do we do when we are experiencing that pain? Or do we simply not want to talk about it?

A Hero’s Journey
A hero is one who demonstrates courage and bravery, one who is willing to take a path usually less traveled. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading and learning of Joseph Campbell’s work, you may recognize what I am alluding to. That journey is one that takes a person inward to look with deep reflection and introspection at the core of who he or she is. That journey is often fraught with fears, concerns, and other emotions that are capable of crippling us, at least for a bit. That journey is capable of perhaps jumbling our lives up so much that we lose perspective of who we thought we were. How we defined ourselves may be completely lost, even if for a while, but still there if we choose to redefine ourselves once again. None of that work is for the faint of heart; it is a humbling and often time scary proposition.

So why would one care to take that hero’s journey, especially if “everything’s okay” or “I’m doing well enough”? It’s because it’s the bigger picture, the Holy Grail that is waiting for our profession and us if we choose to take it. Will it bring us riches? Will it make us happy? Will we find peace and fulfillment? Will it change the course of our profession and the people we serve? We will never know if we choose not to take it. You will never know if you choose not to take it. And, life will just go on as it is. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.” Do you know where you’re going? Do you know where your profession is going?

For many of our colleagues, life as a dentist is just starting. Everything is fresh and new; the world seems like a challenging yet rewarding place. What lies ahead may seem wonderful. Yet for those who have been in dentistry perhaps 10 years or more, concerns, issues, and fears have been creeping in; our perspective on what lies ahead for them is confusing, frustrating, and sometimes downright scary, if we’re willing to admit it.

Each of us has the ability and the capability to create our own future. This is true despite what is happening all around us, including what our colleagues, our associations, our government, and more are doing. As a professional coach and practicing dentist, I know you have it in you. I’m not building you up to take that hero’s journey; I’m just stating a fact.

Can you “awaken the optimist” within you? Certainly you can! You start by taking charge of your life and all aspects of it. You take responsibility for each and every action; you become completely accountable to yourself and every person around you. You live with complete integrity in all you do and all you say; you are impeccable with your word. You nurture your body, mind, and soul in every way possible, choosing the healthiest way available. You sharpen your communication and relationship skills to a high degree. You become a “the-buck-stops-here” type of person without fail. You love the people who choose you for their care, and you become a role model for your team and your community of trust, honor, and respect.

Just one of us may not be able to change the course of the profession, and our profession may indeed by on an uncharted path at its present time. However, if more of us are willing to heed the call of a hero’s journey, we can create a future of choice for our profession, and ourselves, and we will no longer be at the whim of outside influencers and influences. The hard part is looking inward. It is my hope that you will take that journey, starting today, and that it will continue and stay with you the rest of your life. You will be an inspiration to all.

Dr. Deems is a professional personal and business coach as well as a practicing dentist. He has been listed in Dentistry Today’s Leaders in Dental Consulting since 2005. He regularly contributes to professional journals, lectures, and provides coaching services on topics that enhance the lives of dentists, team members, and their patients. He can be reached at drdeems@drdondeems.com.

Disclosure: Dr. Deems reports no disclosures.