Spare the knives ... save the dental souls!

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If your practice is eating away at your dental soul through the 'Death of a Thousand Cuts,' look for the antidote in new ways.

by Barry Polansky, DMD

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The ancient Chinese employed a form of slow execution called "The Death of a Thousand Cuts" in which the victim was sliced repeatedly with a knife. Each individual wound was superficial and nonlethal, but the accumulation of hundreds of cuts proved fatal and caused much more pain and suffering than one sure stroke.

For many in our profession, the daily onslaught of difficult procedures, rejected treatment plans, assistants who just don't get it, the end-of-the-month cash-flow crunch and other office "fires" can lead to a fate not unlike the victims of the Chinese torture.Henry David Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." I've come to believe that, in dentistry, there are a higher proportion of men and women in that category than normal. We start our dental practices to give ourselves more life; yet, inevitably, our practices slowly suck up the lives we have.

Business is hard!
Ironically, it wasn't the dentistry that caused my distress. It was the "business" of dentistry that devoured my soul. All things being equal, I love the clinical side of my profession. But, all the problems that confronted me in my practice — social, financial, and physical — during the normal day-to-day routine were overwhelming. The business of dentistry is hard! Unfortunately, I didn't quite recognize that at first.

Like many people, I studied philosophy at college, enjoying the sense of order that a well-constructed framework of ideas could bring to an otherwise indecipherable argument or problem.

So when faced with such a myriad of problems in the early days of my practice, quite naturally, I began to search for a philosophy of dentistry that would help me make sense of the issues at play.

The antidote to my pain
I looked to successful dentists to find my mentors, and, at the time, there were some great ones — Pankey, Dawson, Reed, Becker, Barkley. What I learned was a real eye-opener! I thought the antidote to my woes would be advanced clinical skills; however, these dental gurus were talking just as much about staff management, financial control, and the philosophy of running a business as they were about how to cut a great crown prep! I was surprised, but it made sense. I put these ideas into effect, and my practice turned the corner from that time on.

Dr. Paddi Lund from Australia
My penchant for philosophy and understanding has never waned. I'm always on the lookout for new philosophies and ideas. However, there is one person who stands out from all the recent crop of gurus and experts by the strength of his dental philosophy and personal success. Far from being in an untouchable, élite position in a major city, Dr. Paddi Lund practices dentistry in the sleepy bayside community of Capalaba, Queensland, Australia. Most of his patients are working class, simple folk, just like the typical residents of Anytown, USA. There is nothing extraordinary about Paddi's restorative skills, and he deals with the same type of managed-care issues as we do.

Although Paddi's strategies for success are a little unorthodox, his personal mission and his unique philosophy intrigued me. "Build your dental business so that it makes you happy" — so you love coming to work — "and achieve it by creating reliable, consistent business systems in the areas of your practice that cause you the most pain."

He understood my key frustrations.

For Paddi, these painful areas were team communication, case acceptance, and his ballooning accounts receivable! Having suffered enough "little cuts" in my own career, I sensed that Paddi understood my frustrations like no one else. Most importantly, I liked the way Paddi was thinking in unusual ways, because I know that thinking differently is one of the keys to success. L.D. Pankey used to say, "Success is a personal matter." I took that to mean that you don't necessarily have to follow someone's techniques or strategies, as long as you build your philosophy with a strong foundation in a way that suits you.

Many who have heard Paddi's story see only the strange things he has done like locking his front door, taking his name out of the phone book and serving cappuccinos to his patients! To most, it sounds like a recipe for disaster! However, those who look closely will see a dentist, not unlike themselves, who spent many years being frustrated with the way a practice "should" be run. Serving cappuccinos won't work in my practice because it's just not me, but Paddi loved the idea. So, he broke the rules and made it his way of sharing time with patients to build strong relationships, which, in turn, helped to nurture referrals.

Before the days of deregulated dentistry, the only way to attract patients was to put up your signs and wait for people to walk in. But Paddi thought about it differently. He wanted control over how many and what kind of patients came to his practice. So, he developed his systems to actually generate quality referrals on a consistent basis and to only attract people who really wanted the type of dentistry he preferred to deliver.

Making money and having fun
Now Paddi only works with patients he enjoys being around ... patents who are profitable to serve. Well, that sounds like a strong business value to me — to make money as well as have a good time with my patients. Perhaps you can see what drew me to Paddi's philosophy!

In addition, Paddi thought differently about his patients' buying decisions and determined that the greatest influences on buying were trust and fear. So, he developed his systems to build trust and address common fears before patients even came to the office. Now, patients commonly buy extensive treatment plans on their first visit. It used to take Paddi a full year to build up to that point.

All in all, Paddi's ideas are incredibly simple. They work because Paddi started with a strong business philosophy — dental happiness — and thought differently about the problems that confronted him.

More than just technical skill
In dentistry today, we put a great emphasis on clinical skills. Yet, years ago, when I graduated from dental school, there was more philosophy in the messages of presiding dental experts. To create a successful practice, we need more than just technical skill. It takes an understanding of yourself, your market, your staff, and the creation of systems that give you the freedom to practice in the manner you so choose.

Dentists all over the country are crying out for more balance and happiness in their lives. With the great changes that have overwhelmed our profession in the past decade, the old model of thinking doesn't work. We must adapt and completely change the way we think about dentistry. Now, more than ever, we need an infusion of philosophical men and women to lend a strong, thinking framework to the situation that confronts us.

Find your inspiration
Perhaps Dr. Paddi Lund can offer us some guidance and understanding now, just as Bob Barkley, Omer Reed, and L.D. Pankey have already done for the industry. Regardless of where you find your inspiration, if your practice is eating away at your dental soul through the "Death of a Thousand Cuts" (i.e., miserable workdays fighting fires, stressed-out staff, ungrateful patients, oppressive managed care, etc.), never give up in your efforts to solve these problems and improve your dental life. Others have succeeded. It can be done ... and how satisfying, after taking the road less traveled, to look back and say as Ole' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, once sang, "I did it my way!"

Paddi Lund Seminar
Paddi Lund is coming to America to share his ideas with the profession on April 12-13. The cost is $995 for dentists, $495 for staff. Call Marybeth Bucelli at Private Practice Publications at (800) 453-9891 to reserve your seats.

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