An accountant recently wrote an article appearing in a dental magazine suggesting that all dentists should plan to work at least five years beyond their planned retirement date. They were told that this would provide them with multiple benefits for their retirement.

This article prompted us to ask, “Benefits for who?” Does he mean five more years of accounting fees that will be paid to the accountant by the doctor? Does he mean five more years of salaries for the staff? More money to leave the children? Once again, doctors are viewed as income producing machines… not as people. They are thought of as someone put on this earth to provide well for everyone else around them. What the accountant failed to take into account was that the doctor was a person with an indeterminable and limited number of healthy years remaining in his or her life. Instead of telling this doctor/person to try to retire earlier (while still healthy and at a time when he can look forward to a longer and more rewarding life), he tells him to work an additional five years!

Young doctors who are about to enter into the practice of dentistry naively dream about the future with stars in their eyes; the big house, nice cars, and an Ivy League education for the children. They are not prepared, however, for the eventual realization that someone (themselves) will have to labor for long hours in their dental practice to provide all those wonderful amenities. When you start practicing dentistry, you stop being a person and you become a doctor. Society’s unwritten, but accepted rules say that a doctor has to provide a better than average lifestyle for his family.

Marketing and management “efficiency” experts promote programs that result in the doctor working faster and harder. “Happiness is a multi-million dollar practice,” they say. “Build bigger offices and hire more staff. Extend your office hours.” Dental suppliers reinforce that position especially when it includes buying new and more expensive equipment. Gross income becomes the doctor’s indicator of success… but certainly not his happiness!

Accountants and attorneys will lose a client if the doctor retires, so they tell him he can’t afford to quit yet and to plan on working longer still. Unfortunately, even family and close friends will say, “What else would he do? He loves it!” and “He wouldn’t know what he’d do with himself if he weren’t practicing dentistry.” Can anyone blame the doctors when they forget that they are people… people with needs like anyone else? Dentists have one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. Why? Because they are a happy lot? No! The problem is everyone thinks they should be happy… after all, aren’t all doctors rich?

Some people are cut out to be dentists, and others are not. Dentists can not come to this realization, however, until they have invested a lot of time and money to become a dentist. Then, if they find out they are not happy in their chosen profession, they wonder what's wrong with them. If everyone thinks being a dentist has to be better than being anything else, then the dentists have nothing else to turn to for a career change. After all, if they already have the best, what else is there!

Thinking you have no chose, of course, leads to the three “D's” of the health-care professions - Depression, Drugs, and Divorce.

Then there are the dentists who think they will practice until they die. Over the years they have watched as their colleagues practiced until they became disabled, and then the dentist retired and shortly after they died. As a result, many doctors fear retirement believing that death will quickly follow. Thus many doctors work until they die instead of retiring earlier and enjoying more of what life has to offer. Death, instead of retirement, becomes the dentist’s reward for a lifetime of service. Thinking this way is so wrong!

Dentists should try to get control over their lives. Don’t live to practice… practice for a living! Establish your personal needs, set business and personal goals, then look at your practice and see what role it should play in your future. Working and studying all those years to become a dentist should not dictate the remaining years of your life. If you want to try something else for a living, then arrange things so that you can try it. If you want to eliminate management stress or lighten clinical responsibilities, then take appropriate action. Don't sit around bemoaning the fact that you are unhappy; do something about it!

AFTCO is not suggesting that you compromise the future security of you and your family, but we are suggesting that there are ways to minimize the risk of change that could give you a new lease on life. If you were capable of becoming a dentist, you could be assured that you are quite capable of being successful in a new career. If you can and want to retire, retire. Travel and see the world. Try fishing and hunting or even sailing. Go to school, get an MBA or become a financial planner, real estate mogul or both! There is a big world out there, and the only limits are self-imposed. Do it while you still have your health and the energy needed to make a change.

AFTCO is a consulting firm that deals with people, people who happen to be doctors. It’s time to call AFTCO!

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