Multiple lists of the world’s wealthiest dentists are available on the Internet. Additionally, online threads in dentists’ discussion groups add to the number of names.
These records share several common elements. First, the same names appear repeatedly. Second, most of these dentists acquired their fortunes in the United States. Finally, few of them achieved their financial status via the direct practice of dentistry. Although clinical dentistry may have been a starting ground, vast opulence was achieved away from the chair. Or if it was achieved within clinical practice, it was through the work of many others.
My work as an expert legal witness and consultant to law firms in dentally related cases has given me access to confidential papers and data. I’ve had the opportunity to review material concerning dealings relating to sundry individuals on these lists. I’ve also personally met and interacted with many of them.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Two frequent citations, Dr. Dan Fischer of Ultradent Products and Bill Dorfman, formerly of Discus Dental, were directly involved with the innovation and marketing of unique dental products. They faced uphill struggles in the dental distribution industry, which allegedly has a history of unlawful price fixing and market manipulations and exclusions.
Fighting against the odds, these doctors eventually prevailed in their dental businesses. Both also contributed time, effort, and money to very worthwhile causes without any expectation of recognition. They retained a great love and respect for their colleagues, which one may see expressed in their teaching. They represent examples to be lauded.
On the other end of the spectrum are doctors who generated huge wealth from fraud and abuses to our dysfunctional dental Medicaid program. These dentists established clinic chains under a model of maximized production and cheating taxpayers. One such chain paid the price for its alleged fraud, to the tune of $5.1 million. Another settled with the Department of Justice for $23.9 million. A third settled for $24 million plus interest. Two more chains based in Texas settled for $1.2 million and $8.45 million, respectively.
These Medicaid mills operated under the phony cloak of assisting the disadvantaged, all the while placing profits above patient welfare. They continually rubbed elbows with notable elected officials, at the same time greasing their palms. Eventually, these doctors cashed out and sold their ventures to the private equity industry.
The pathetic legacy for these doctors is not their private jets and multimillion-dollar homes. It is the negative influence and corruption thrust upon a new generation of dental professionals. Profits were always placed above patient welfare. Young dentists witnessed this firsthand and copied the model presented. Some have gone on to build their own empires of dental chains focused on scamming the system. Their sanctimonious bogus claims of virtue by assisting the poor has become a trite joke within circles of the dental and legal professions.
Years ago, when I lectured from the podium, I contended that Medicaid fraud was the most lucrative business model within the practice of dentistry. The audience refrain was a predictable chorus of incredulous chuckles. Today, that laughter has been replaced by a silent sea of acknowledging nodding heads.
Swindles in healthcare have become an unfortunate entrenched and accepted reality, with recent cases involving doctors in Illinois, Arkansas, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Washington. Most realize that cheating public healthcare has become big business.
Ostrow and Belfort: Profits Outside Dentistry
Two who generated fortunes and left the field of dentistry were Dr. Herman Ostrow and Jordan Belfort. Their stories couldn’t be more opposite.
Ostrow discontinued his honorable and accomplished clinical practice after nearly two decades. He successfully entered the high-stakes world of real estate development and construction in southern California, amassing great wealth. He donated $35 million to the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, which today bears his name.
Belfort is best known through Leonardo DiCaprio’s smarmy film character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Fortunately for the dental profession, Belfort dropped out of the Baltimore College of Dentistry and never practiced. Instead, he ventured into a career of fraud and stock manipulation.
Belfort trained young stockbrokers in boiler-room high-pressure sales techniques over worthless securities. He masterminded numerous “pump-and-dump” scams. In the process, Belfort generated millions.
“After all, it wasn’t every firm that sported hookers in the basement, drug dealers in the parking lot, exotic animals in the boardroom, and midget-tossing competitions on Fridays,” he said in his 2009 book, Catching the Wolf of Wall Street.
Sadly, this wasn’t too far off a similar reality I observed in the dental Medicaid mill industry in my review of extensive witness testimony and depositions.
A federal investigation 1999 resulted in Belfort accepting a plea agreement. He served two years of federal incarceration, agreed to $110 million in victim restitution, was permanently banned from the investment industry, and became a government informant and witness in other prosecutions. Today, he is best known for motivational speaking.
Tragically, lists of the wealthiest dentists include far too many Jordan Belfort types. Some manage and/or own dental service organizations (DSOs) or variously constructed dental franchise operations. Many groom junior colleagues to swindle an unwitting public, the insurance industry, and government assistance programs. Others target naïve doctors serving under their corporate banner to squeeze every dollar of production out of them. All the while, these young burnout professionals toil under oppressive student debt loads, work visa requirements for foreign national doctors, and intentionally one-sided and esoteric employment and “ownership” contracts.
The Myth of Icarus
One interesting case among the richest dentists involved a highly capable and charismatic doctor who built a chain of exclusive high-end dental clinics. He was frequently interviewed on media talk shows and in elite print magazines. He exuded both charm and energy for his brand of dentistry. In fact, one can still download photos of this doctor parading onstage wearing nothing but his abbreviated Speedo. Yes, something was very wrong. Perhaps like Icarus, with his wings of wax, he flew too close to the sun.
This doctor struggled with the disease of chemical dependency. His staff faced payless paydays. His clinics eventually closed their doors, and patients were turned away. The state dental board revoked his dental license for failure to comply with a professional diversion program. All he had seemingly built was lost.
Hopefully, one day this dentist will be successful in working a recovery program and meet his highest potential. With his hubris crushed, many elements of positive character may be ultimately revealed. In the tradition of Greek mythology, a phoenix can rise to great heights from the ashes of demise and destruction.
The path to recognition among the world’s wealthiest dentists is varied. Some are crooks who operate outside the rule of law and professional ethics. Others are ethical and honorable. Some left the practice of dentistry entirely to build other businesses. Others built enterprises within the dental profession. The common theme is that almost no one stayed glued to chairside dentistry as a primary income source.
Jealousy of these affluent doctors is foolish. Some experienced the deep pain of marital infidelity. Others lost children to suicide and drug overdose. Many spend more time with corporate attorneys to seek revenge and cover their backsides versus time with friends or family. A few take great delight and effort in crushing a subordinate doctor whom they view as a threat or challenge.
Too frequently, their opulent lifestyles represent an inadequate Band-Aid covering deep personal wounds. Issues can include profound feelings of inadequacy, painful family abandonment matters, drug and alcohol abuse within a range of addiction disorders, a near total lack of a conscience and empathy for others, and compensation mechanisms for uncontrolled narcissistic disorders. No conceivable luxury known to mankind can heal such damage. Thankfully, some of these dentists have avoided such maladies.
An ancient Hindu proverb states that there are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading to the same place, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only person wasting time is the one who runs around the mountain telling everyone that his or her path is wrong. More importantly, one must ask himself or herself if this is truly a mountain worth climbing.
Can true wealth be better accessed through a code of personal and professional conduct and ethical dealings? Can true wealth be achievable through direct care and service to our patients? Is true wealth a function of balance between one’s career, faith, family, love, and recreation?
Mahatma Gandhi said that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. I sincerely hope you place yourself on a personal list of the world’s richest dentists, a list of your own making and criteria, and not consumed by unhealthy and unbalanced greed.
Dr. Davis practices general dentistry in Santa Fe, NM. He assists as an expert witness in dental fraud and malpractice legal cases. He currently chairs the Santa Fe District Dental Society Peer-Review Committee and serves as a state dental association member to its house of delegates. He extensively writes and lectures on related matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or smilesofsantafe.com.