Putting Patients First; One Dentist’s Story
By Kimberly Wright, DMD, MAGD
It’s hard to pinpoint when the concept of independence became a running theme for me, but it feels like it’s always been a motivating factor for my next steps. As an Alaskan born woman, maybe it’s just part of my DNA but early on I understood that standing on my own two feet was my preferred path forward. The journey to dentistry was practical before it became passionate but within it, I found an occupation that continues to bring excitement and purpose to my life. Most importantly, it afforded me all the independence I’ve ever wanted and offered an outlet for helping others find theirs. Sadly, this profession that I love has been under a slow rolling assault over the last several years as so many of my colleagues have lost their autonomy by settling for consolidation. I’ve witnessed the harm this poses to private dentistry and am here to affirm there is a better option for dental organizations nationwide. More on that to come.
I can’t say there was ever a lightbulb moment when I knew I was meant to be a dentist. All I knew for sure was I wanted to have a viable career by the age of 30. As a young woman in the 1980s, professional independence wasn’t especially encouraged so I had to be strategic with my career choices. I had found a pretty good job, as many women did, doing office work and some light bookkeeping so there was a time when I thought pursuing an accounting degree might be a possibility. It didn’t take too many accounting classes to realize that was not in the cards for me. During this journey to find my someday self at age 21, I moved from Alaska to Washington and realized my love of science while attending Bellevue Community College. From there, I transferred to the University of Oregon and earned a degree in Biology. That’s when dentistry first revealed itself as an opportunity to meet my ambitions as an independent professional woman. I went on to graduate with Honors from Oregon Health & Science University in 1989 and was on my way to a long and satisfying dental career.
Over the last three decades of service and practice ownership within an evolving industry, I have never lost my love of learning. In fact, I’ve been accused of being a continued education junkie, logging over 100 hours per year to stay apprised of the latest dental innovations and share it with others in the field. COVID-19 almost squashed this pursuit, but I was able to organize a small group of dentists who joined me in growing our skills virtually. It is through outreach like this and other interactions with younger colleagues that I’ve become aware of the negative impact consolidation is having on the profession.
Time and again I hear dental professionals who’ve chosen to sell their practice prematurely or work for corporate dentistry complain of being forced to use subpar materials, inferior supplies and low-quality lab services, which exponentially impacts their patient care. Even worse, they are no longer able to work within their comfort zones and get pushed into less familiar procedures because they’ve lost the ability to say no. Insurance companies don’t help matters with complicated payor structures and minimal reimbursements that drive dentistry to require less time spent with patients than many providers are comfortable with. While these are just a few of the issues raised, the trend is clear that profits are usurping the needs of patients and doctors when private dental organizations sell to corporate entities.
Watching my colleagues face these professional obstacles has made me much more staunchly independent. I’ve even taken the step of cutting ties with many of the PPOs I’d previously contracted with. While I’ve lost patients in the short term who wanted to remain in network, many have come back after experiencing the difference in the care they received with other providers. My passion for the field of dentistry mixed with my concern regarding the current projections for its future has made me an advocate for independent dentists. I believe that finding a like-minded tribe that is working toward the same goals is essential and I’ve worked to organize small local groups to do just that.
Recently, I joined forces with a healthcare company that believes in provider autonomy as I do and is working to secure doctor independence nationwide. Because the Health Professionals Alliance (HPA) mission is so beneficial to dentistry and medicine, I believe it should be broadly supported by like-minded providers. Their goal is to offer more comprehensive choices to doctors and they’ve developed a model that directly competes with corporate consolidation efforts. HPA boosts practice performance with discounted priority services that every healthcare organization can utilize to increase their revenue flow. Additionally, they have developed a unique financial opportunity that gives medical and dental providers a fighting chance against corporations with a powerful group of doctor owners. As this alliance grows, so does the well-being of private practices all over this country.
Even though I pretty much stumbled upon dentistry as my career path, it didn’t take long to fall in love with it. There’s nothing like seeing a smile on my patient’s face that I helped strengthen, straighten, or shine brighter. Healthcare should be about helping communities and independence ensures that a doctor’s focus can remain where it matters most, on the people they serve. Any provider who shares this philosophy of service and would prefer the fruits of their labors to benefit their own livelihood rather than some corporate spreadsheet should consider joining our alliance. Private practices need all the help they can get to run their complex businesses efficiently and HPA is the best resource I’ve found to ensure the future independence of dentistry. One thing is for sure, I’ll always trust my own best judgement for treating my patients over what a corporation has to say in a binder somewhere. I encourage every doctor to do the same.
Dr. Kimberly Wright, DMD MAGD has been a practicing dentist for over 30 years and currently owns and operates her own practice in West Linn, Oregon. She is a passionate leader in her dental community as a recipient of the Master’s Award from the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) in 2011 and has served in several leadership roles within the AGD and the Oregon Dental Association (ODA). Dr. Wright continues to work hard to maximize her independence within dentistry and support other private practitioners every day.