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Montana Pride

Jan. 1, 2006
Dr. Tom Lidahl has found happiness and fulfillment practicing in his hometown of Plentywood, Montana (population 2,000).
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Dr. Tom Lidahl has found happiness and fulfillment practicing in his hometown of Plentywood, Montana (population 2,000). He’s also a firm believer that a rural location does not equal isolation.

Dr. Tom Lidahl was in the middle of renovating his newly formed office when a nearby dentist stopped by to see how things were going. After a 30-minute conversation, the two parted ways, but the impression that talk made on Dr. Lidahl is still very evident.

For the vast majority of Dental Economics® readers, having a nearby dentist pop in for a visit is no big deal. In cities around the country, there are dentists in the same office building, along the same block or street, or in the same zip code. But Dr. Tom Lidahl is different. He is the only dentist in Plentywood, Montana, a city of 2,000 situated 17 miles from the Canadian border and 21 miles from the North Dakota state line. Dr. Lidahl is the only dentist in Sheridan County and is one of 22 dentists within his Montana district that covers 33,000 square miles.

Oh ... and the dentist who “popped in” for a visit? Well, that was Dr. Sam Espeland, the president of the Montana Dental Association, who drove 150 miles one way just to say hello.

“That kind act of caring for a new, wet behind the ears dentist had a profound impact on me,” Dr. Lidahl recalled. “A caring peer had taken time from his busy schedule to drive 150 miles and did what organized dentistry does so well - show care and genuine concern for others in the profession.”

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Dr. Lidahl has followed that example well, and has even walked in the footsteps of Dr. Espeland. Twenty-eight years after receiving a visit from the leader of the Montana Dental Association, Dr. Lidahl found himself as the MDA’s president. During his year in office, he put more than 50,000 miles on his car visiting other MDA members, attending local meetings (and “local” could mean 150 miles away), and taking part in state executive board meetings held in Helena (roughly 500 miles from Plentywood). He continues to travel as the chair of the Montana Section of the American College of Dentists and editor of the Montana Section of the International College of Dentists.

“Just because I practice in a rural environment doesn’t mean that I’m isolated,” Dr. Lidahl smiled. “Montana has a very tight-knit dental organization. About 90 percent of the state’s dentists belong to the MDA, which puts Montana in the top two or three in the nation in terms of membership ratio.”

Dr. Lidahl is also proud of the fact that more than 50 percent of MDA members (including himself) participate in CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and about 65 percent of MDA members are enrolled as Medicaid providers. Montana dentists also recently reached the milestone of $1 million in donated services to DDS (Donated Dental Services).

“Being in a rural setting provides quite a unique opportunity to serve those (Medicaid) patients,” Dr. Lidahl said. “Contrary to some of the negative remarks we hear about the access issue, I find my patients who have Medicaid coverage are extremely appreciative of the care they receive. For the most part, I can count on them to make every effort to keep their appointments and cooperate with the suggestions we have for their overall dental health.”

While some might be unable to imagine practicing in a rural setting like Plentywood, Dr. Lidahl can’t imagine practicing anywhere else.

“People here are genuinely friendly, the environment is safe with little or no crime, pollution is non-existent, old-fashioned values and work ethics are still the norm, and neighbor takes care of neighbor,” Dr. Lidahl beamed when speaking of his hometown. “Despite being in a small town, there are more social activities, civic affairs, and youth activities than there is time. The school system and the environment are safe, and the advent of high technology has not been overlooked because of the rural location.”

Technology has also not been overlooked in Dr. Lidahl’s practice. Five of the six operatories are equipped with central nitrous oxide, Softdent charting software, Kodak digital X-ray systems, intraoral cameras, and CAESY patient education software. Each operatory has two flat screen monitors (one for patient viewing and one behind the patient) and all rooms are wired to satellite television for patient comfort and enjoyment.

“I think all dentists want to offer the finest care they can, regardless of the location of the practice,” Dr. Lidahl said. “I want to offer my patients the best dentistry they can get, and I believe technology allows me to offer more efficient dentistry. I’m 59, but I still like the challenge of learning.”

Dr. Lidahl is also looking for an associate, and he knows that a high-tech office will help him in his quest. While pitching the benefits of small-town living, Dr. Lidahl hopes having a modern practice will be the proverbial icing on the cake for a new associate.

“We have a patient base of more than 5,000 fee-for-service patients, so the patient base is here and the business is here. However, I always tell prospective associates that they need to live where they are going to be happy. The top concern shouldn’t be business; it should be the place where you live. It’s not always a hindrance to not have a mall or airport down the street. Here, you can go down the street and go shopping and you are supporting your patients, who are the same people who are supporting you.”

The relationship between Dr. Tom (as he is known around town) and the residents of Plentywood is a very important and precious thing to Dr. Lidahl.

“We’re starting to see third-generation patients and people who have moved away from Plentywood but still come back here for their dentistry,” Dr. Lidahl said. “In a small town, you feel comfortable with the pastor, dentist, and physician. That’s a compliment that I take very seriously. The same people I serve as a dentist are the same people I sing with in the church choir or see in the store. Patients here are literally your neighbors. Over 30-plus years, they know they can trust you, but I never want to take that for granted.”

Part of that trust also comes from continuity of staff members. Together, as a team, Dr. Lidahl and his staff of five have a combined 125 years of experience in the office.

Front row (from left): Tressa Wang (office manager) and Maria Godijohn (assistant). Back row (from left): Dr. Tom Lidahl, Deb Solberg (hygienist), Kathy Hagan (assistant), and Susan Kavon (hygienist).
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“We don’t always have a sales rep who comes to Plentywood, so when one calls on the phone, there’s a very good understanding that the staff is in control,” Dr. Lidahl explained. “Everything flows so well in the office because of the staff.”

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Despite the rural setting, Sheridan Dental Clinic (the office is named after the county, and Plentywood is the county seat) still adds roughly 20 to 25 new patients each month. Recently, improvements in the United States-Canada border patrol brought 100 new patients into Dr. Lidahl’s practice.

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The rural setting also didn’t stop Dr. Lidahl when he was ready to redesign his office in the late 1970s. Not caring for the standard long hallway design of the day, Dr. Lidahl had an idea to place his operatories in a half-octagon pattern. With an architect nowhere nearby, Dr. Lidahl took his idea to the local lumberyard and his current office was born.

“There are so many great resources available in a small town,” Dr. Lidahl said. “The traffic flow was new and innovative for the time, no architect was used, and it has served us faithfully and well for all these years.”

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The can-do small-town spirit is one of the things Dr. Lidahl loves about his hometown. Working with others, Dr. Lidahl believes projects can be done in Plentywood and around the nation.

“Wonderful things can be accomplished when everyone pitches in,” said Dr. Lidahl, who is currently coordinating his church’s building campaign. “Look at all of the things organized dentistry has done to help mankind. With Give Kids A Smile, the Katrina relief effort, and other projects, it takes organized dentistry to get the job done. I’ve seen the trust in dentists drop over the years, but I know organized dentistry can help rebuild that image.”

And Dr. Lidahl will continue to do everything he can to promote dentistry, just like he always has. Since he began practicing in 1973, 10 students from Plentywood have become dentists - including Dr. Lidahl’s daughter, Lisa, who currently practices in Grand Rapids, Minn.

“I always encourage students to at least look at dentistry as a career,” Dr. Lidahl said. “I also remind them that they can play an important role, no matter where they live. Just because you live in a rural location, it doesn’t mean you can’t become involved in a cause.”

For more information on Dr. Tom Lidahl and/or the Sheridan Dental Clinic ...
phone - (406) 765-2700
Web -
e-mail - [email protected]

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