Well, this morning I woke up and that was the good news, and then I was overwhelmed by the thought that, as of this morning, there were over 315 million US residents in the United States alone. Well, I’m just one of those 300 million, so how do I make myself matter? If you stop to think about it, it’s a daunting task to feel good about yourself, to feel like you’re making a difference for others, and to feel like your life’s work, your profession, is really there as a conduit for you to make a difference in other people’s lives, but what about making a difference in your own life? Oftentimes, by serving others we serve ourselves.
I was also kind of overwhelmed by the thought that there’s 160,000 US dentists, and I’m just one of those 160,000. Well, I felt a little better when I recalled I was an endodontist… Geez, you know, I leaped out of bed on that one because I thought, “My god, there’s only 6,500 US Endodontists!” But still, out of over 6,500 endodontists, I’m just one of those endodontists. I’m in a big machine.
Dentistry is a very well-oiled, vast machine in the United States. It’s a multibillion dollar a year enterprise. Medicine is much, much larger. So, I am just one of thousands of dentists delivering dental care. It’s an incredible, successful dental machine and I’m a single cog in this vast machine. So, I ask all of you – How do you make yourself matter?
So you’ll know, I read this article in the New York Times some years ago, and it was written by a physician, “How Do You Make Yourself Matter?” I don’t have the article -- I don’t know his name -- but I indelibly on that plane, that day, taking that flight across the United States… I read the article and made some notes. Here’s what I learned from that article.
Here’s how you make yourself matter:
1) You need to ask patients an unscripted question. You know, you’re talking to strangers. You meet them. They come in off the street. We tend to be so formal and so regimented in our discussions and conversations that we don’t sometimes get an opening to find humanness among all these technical things we’re doing. So, learn a little something about your patient. Make a human connection. Ask them how they’re doing. Do they golf? If you must speak, ask a question… Make the connection.
2) This is for you, on how to make yourself matter – Don’t whine. There is nothing more dispiriting than hearing doctors whine. It takes away all of our power. I know you have a lot to whine about, my goodness, all we have to do is look right before us. You have insurance issues. Your computer system just crashed. Your receptionist resigned. You just bought a conebeam technology machine and the good news was you could afford to write the check… the bad news is you’re not even sure where it goes, how to hang it, you don’t know how to retrieve information, store information, and exchange information.
You’re overwhelmed by all this stuff. Well, there’s internal regulatory issues, and of course you wake-up every day, are your water lines cleaned? You know, what’s the protocol for the emergency kit? Well, don’t mention there’s competition. Wouldn’t it be great if you were the only dentist in your community? Not really… You’d be killed by busyness, but sometimes there’s too many dentists… At least that’s what we think. I don’t ever think there are too many dentists. I just think the pie is not fixed. It can be grown. The pie can be made bigger. So, why don’t we operate from abundance instead of scarcity. Scarcity is the pie is fixed, everybody that moves into the community is a competitor, and my piece is getting smaller and smaller.
So, I know you have lots of things to worry about. I mean, I just opened up the Yellow Pages. This is funny… You’ll like this. I open up the Yellow Pages once a year in Santa Barbara just to see, you know, what the section looks like. When I came to Santa Barbara and opened up my office in 1976, all the dentists appeared on two pages total. That was every dentist in Santa Barbara. There was about 130 dentists. Now, there are probably as many as almost 30 pages of dentists, many with full page ads, half page ads… just incredible. You probably wonder, well how am I going to survive with all these dentists? Don’t whine about it, just get better.
3) To make yourself matter… Count something. You should be a scientist in your own professional world. If you count something that’s interesting to you, you will find something interesting. Being interested in our work is paramount to having a successful career. So, what could you count? Well, I’m an endodontist so I can count all kinds of things. I like to count 3-rooted maxillary bicuspids. I like to count mid-mesials in mandibular molars. Of course, it’s been fun to count MB2s for the last 30 years. How about radicular fractures? You could count those. You could look at every post-operative image and count the numbers of obturated portals of exit. That means the communication from the body of the canal to the attachment apparatus. You could count failures. The point is, if you count something, you’ll become interested in it and it will be a little thing that you’ll delve into a lot deeper and you’ll probably make discoveries.
4) What’s another thing you could do to make yourself matter? I’ve always found that writing something, even if it’s something that’s quite small, is important. You can write anything. You can write about an observation you made today. You could write some poetry if that’s something that helps you disengage from professional life, and it helps you find a spot where there’s peace and tranquility… where you’re creative. You could write a little observation on a clinical tip and put it in a bulletin, or send it to some of your referrals. Or, even if you’re a general dentist, you could write a little clinical tip to send to your patients. You could write some small observation about your family and some little interaction you might have had that was a very special moment. So, in other words, you do not need to achieve perfection in your writing… Just a small observation about your world. Dentistry is retail. We see one patient at a time, and one more after another, after another, and over time, it becomes a grind. So, writing allows us to step back, disengage in something, and then we can write more, not from a retailer’s standpoint, but we can think through a problem. By thinking it through, we can write and that will help us to connect to something larger than ourselves.
5) The last thing we need to do to stay active and engaged, and enrolled to making ourselves matter, is we need to be willing to change. Not just for the sake of change, but to change when it’s reasonable, when it’s going to add value to our practice, and when we can better serve our patients -- if you can cut down a chairtime procedure or if you can do a procedure with more skill. There’s always the early adopters, there’s the late adopters, and of course, there’s the persistent skeptics.
So, don’t just be another cog in the dental, cog machine, in the big machine, the big dental machine… Do not let yourself become irrelevant. Make yourself matter.