• Pace Yourself
Jan 15 2019 - Simon Palmer - RetirementSell a dental practice

When my grandfather was in his early 80s, he was driving back from his regular morning swim at a friend’s pool at 630am when the police pulled him over. They said that he had been driving erratically and they had been trying to get his attention with their sirens for a few blocks. The police took him home in the back of the police car and that was the end of his driving career. Looking back at the situation, I think the whole family was aware of the incremental degradation of his faculties over the previous few years, and perhaps there should have been an earlier intervention. It was lucky, under the circumstances, that no one was hurt by his poor driving skills in his last few years behind the wheel.

Fortunately, in Australia we don’t rely solely on self-regulation when it comes to driving. Once you reach a senior age (it varies in different states), it is mandatory that you take a regular test to ensure that you are fit to drive. It is the same with commercial airline pilots, at a much younger age. Federal Judges, firefighters and policemen don’t have such a test. They have a mandatory retirement age that differs from state to state.

Why do we do this to experienced, senior professionals…? Surely, with their extra years of experience in their field comes more knowledge, insight, diagnostic ability and muscle memory, which younger professionals don’t have?

I think the answer is obvious. We, as a society, recognise that with age comes compromises to our physical and mental aptitude. Vision, hearing, agility, dexterity and stamina all become compromised at some point as we age, and degradation in processing speed and decision-making is inevitable. If your profession comes with the ability to impact on the wellbeing of other people’s lives (like a judge or commercial pilot), Australia (and other countries) has enforced age limits, to ensure that people are protected from professionals whose age could physically or mentally compromise them…That is, of course, unless you hold a high-speed handpiece or needle in someone’s mouth for a living.

Somehow, there is no mandatory testing of physical or mental aptitude for surgeons or dentists at any age, in order to remain registered and practicing. Doctors and dentists are lucky to be able to rely on self-regulation to determine when it is time to hang up the tools.

With that lack of regulatory oversight comes a huge burden of responsibility and obligation that dentists and their families owe the public, to keep an eye on their own fatigue and faculties. Dentists need to be able to look beyond their own financial, lifestyle and identity preferences and recognise when it is time to retire. While there will always be a few who will hang in there too long, the vast majority of the profession has a high level of professional integrity and retires long before compromises to their faculties ever impact on their clinical abilities.

If you are a dentist who can see that a gradual degradation in vision, back/neck pain or fatigue is beginning to creep in and dictate your patient’s clinical choices, it might be time to start thinking about an exit plan. It doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing decision. If you aren’t ready to retire, many dentists find that by cutting down their clinical hours to part-time (fewer weeks per year, fewer days per week, fewer hours per day), their chronic pain and fatigue is much more manageable, and that they are able to keep practicing quality, uncompromised dentistry longer.

If you are a practice owner, this scale-back will need to be done carefully, so as to not compromise the revenue, profit and underlying sale value of the practice. The senior clinician either has to replace themselves in the practice as they scale down, or sell before they scale down, and work in the practice as an employee/contractor in their last years in practice.

When you have a fixed date of retirement, you can and should sprint to the finish and work hard to the end. When you want to keep working as long as possible, you need to pace yourself. All dentists owe it to their patients, community and their own legacy to ensure that the reputation they built through the provision of many years of proud, high-calibre dentistry is not undermined by compromises in their final years of practice.