Happy practice step 1: choose happiness

Jan. 1, 2004
Imagine playing poker with the same group of people for 30 years. Every Tuesday night you meet at one another's homes and spend three enjoyable hours just playing cards.

Barry Polansky, DMD

Imagine playing poker with the same group of people for 30 years. Every Tuesday night you meet at one another's homes and spend three enjoyable hours just playing cards. You say poker doesn't turn you on? Substitute bridge or golf or even bingo. It's not the game; it's the people. The time you spend in relationship with friends is rewarding because you can be who you really are. On the flipside, imagine if you had to create a new game every week with different people. While it's possible you might get lucky and find a rewarding game once in a while, more often you'd be reinventing yourself every week. Our dental practices can be the same way.

Many have philosophized and written about the key to happiness. I may not be able to give you your personal key, but I certainly believe if we're not happy in our work, our work can eat up our energy. Luckily, we live in a country that allows us the right to pursue happiness. So, why do so many dentists allow strange patients, strange staff members, and strange insurance companies to enter their card game every day?

How do you feel about what I have written in the first two paragraphs? Sounds great, doesn't it? But your next thoughts may be ones of skepticism and disbelief. The idea of making our work into play sounds like the stuff of dreams. Many of us wonder if it's possible to create a practice we can thoroughly enjoy. The minute we entertain the idea of creating the ideal practice, we are flooded with doubts and fears that remind us that dentistry is work — mostly very difficult, demanding work — and for many of us, I'm sorry to say, mostly unenjoyable.

After writing my book, The Art of the Examination, I received many phone calls from dentists all over the country, who generally agreed with the ideal practice I described, but revealed fears and doubts, which were actually no more than their self-imposed limitations. No matter how much I tried to convince them it was possible to create their ideal practice, they told me they were too old or too set in their ways. Many told me they didn't have the necessary skills. Others said it wouldn't work in their communities. Some told me they couldn't afford the time or money that it would take to change their practices. These were sad dentists who only knew their limitations.

The philosopher Bertram Russell said, "The very best proof that something can be done is that others have already done it." That's the way it was for me. At one time, I believed there were very few options in the way I could practice dentistry. My practice wasn't my own. It belonged to the staff, the patients, and worst of all, to third parties. That all changed many years ago when I started to change the way I looked at the business of dentistry. And that's where everything starts — with your viewpoint, or to use the modern buzzword, your paradigm of practice.

One of the greatest philosophical principles ever verbalized is that you become what you think about most of the time. James Allen's classic book, As a Man Thinketh, is filled with examples that prove our outer worlds are nothing more than expressions of our inner thoughts.

One dentist told me his patients couldn't afford to write checks exceeding $500. I wondered if he had cast himself as "The $500 dentist." I know another dentist who has become quite famous on the speaker's circuit, and his patients accept the very best dentistry — same town, same profession, different mindset. Someone once said, "Think you can, think you can't; either way, you'll be right."

It all starts with changing your mind. Over the next few months, I will discuss the importance of keeping our practices — our practices — so we can do the dentistry we enjoy with people we enjoy. I believe dentistry can be fulfilling and fun. There are some things in life we just have to endure — traffic jams, telemarketers, and in-laws — but not an unhappy work life. It's your practice, your poker game, and you have choices.

Barry Polansky, DMD, practices dentistry in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is a member of the Visiting Faculty of The Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education and author of the book The Art of the Examination: Why Patient Care Goes Beyond Clinical Correctness. Dr. Polansky also publishes a monthly newsletter titled Private Practice, and may be reached toll-free at (866) 428-4028, and also at www.drbarrypolansky.com.

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