Create an Organizational Culture that Is the Antithesis of Learned Helplessness 

May 24, 2024 Pina Johnson

By Pina Johnson, Professional Certified Coach, and Edwin (Mac) McDonald, DDS 

B.F. Skinner, a noted 20th century behavioral psychologist, conducted an intriguing and provocative experiment using laboratory mice. Using behavioral conditioning he was able to condition one group of mice to believe that through their actions they were able to determine their fate. Using the same methodology, he also succeeded in conditioning another group of mice to believe that there was nothing they could do to alter their fate. 

He then placed the first group of mice, the ones that believed their actions mattered, into a large tub filled with water. As anticipated, this group of mice, when placed in a life-threatening situation, acted instinctively and began to swim to the side of the large water-filled tub. Upon reaching the edge of the tub the mice were able to crawl out to safety. 

The second group of mice, the ones that believed that their actions were meaningless, when placed in the tub of water, simply sank to the bottom and drowned. Appropriately, the lack of responsiveness displayed by the second group of mice was termed “learned helplessness.” 

Culture Lifts or Sinks Ambition 

Belief that our actions and choices matter is essential to “making things happen.” 

According to Edgar Schein, an icon of modern leadership thought, the primary function of leadership is to create an organizational culture. The culture that we choose to create will influence every aspect of our organization and ultimately determine our dental practice’s success or failure. 

Value-based leaders understand the power to alter the course of the organization does not reside with a few; it is shared by many. Organizations with cultures based on shared beliefs and purpose are higher performing. Leaders of the highest performing organizations foster cultures rich in collaborative decision making and a profound belief that everyone has influence. 

Counter Learned Helplessness by Empowering Self-Confidence 

We have come to recognize that good-old “self-confidence” is a learned competency, and effective leaders create organizational cultures that promote and teach self-confidence to each individual team member. This is accomplished by empowering teams through collaborative decision making and ensuring each team member has been given the knowledge, skill, support, resources, and appropriate authority to accomplish each task required to meet the shared goal. 

Unleash Teamwork and Creativity 

In organizations with shared leadership cultures, human self-confidence is unleashed beyond saving oneself to act in the best interest of the organization. Knowing that our individual actions will have some effect on our organization’s future (and thus on our own future and the future of others we value) compels us to want to take actions that have positive benefit for everyone. This is “meaningful” for the individuals within the organization. This raises their engagement in the work and simultaneously generates a sense of wellbeing.  

In our dental practices, “We are serving others with empathy and care to ultimately improve their wellbeing.” This is a form of love. It begets appreciation and reciprocity. When the slings and arrows of daily life initiate negative thoughts of being out of control of a situation, remembering our purpose and prior successes enables us to see disappointments and frustrations as opportunities to create a new type of approach and carry on. 

The goal for effective leaders is to allow all of this to happen in a psychologically safe environment in which our staff need not fear repercussions for their well-intended actions even if the outcome of these actions is less than ideal. By creating organizational cultures that are psychologically safe, we draw out our organizational creativity which is often stifled by the psychological repression found in command-and-control cultures. 

Creative thinking is considered to be one our highest-level cognitive functions and has been found to be a distinguishing characteristic of exceptional organizations. The wise leader understands that their organization is best served through shared power, collaboration, and utilization of their organization’s collective creativity. 

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Getting to Treatment: Letters to My Patients 

May 22, 2024 Laura Harkin

By Laura S. Harkin, DMD  

My dad and I were enjoying our favorite lunch spot years ago when he turned to me and said, “Laura, isn’t it amazing? There’s an incredible sense of trust that our patients have in us. Sometimes, we give our best recommendation for treatment, and it is declined as if it weren’t important or a priority. I’ve recognized that, more often than not, our patients eventually choose to move forward, proving that it was more a matter of timing and circumstance than lack of value.” 

Trust is the cornerstone of our practice. It was transferred from patients to Grandpa to Dad and to me. I do believe that every morsel is earned through guidance, thoughtfulness, and skill. Trust is an entity that requires constant nurturing. In private practice, one should recognize that a doctor’s trust in their patient is equally as important as a patient’s trust in their provider. With synergy there’s the opportunity for optimal health. Even as a child, I had a very clear understanding of the care my dad had for his patients. This feeling is innate and deeply imbedded in me. I imagine that he felt the same.  

I don’t consider myself “a writer,” but I’ve always enjoyed the art of letter writing. I grew up writing frequently to my grandparents and friends and always loved picking out stationary that reflected my personality. Recently, I reread the letters that my grandfather typed on his old typewriter and my oldest brother scribbled on his Grateful Dead CD inserts – crafted just for me. It seems fitting then that I enjoy writing personalized letters to my patients. In fact, I’m pretty sure I salvaged my mental health during COVID by writing “updates” to my patients during months of closure. I digress. 

The letters that I write to my patients are most often in reference to comprehensive treatment. They provide a bird’s eye glimpse of our most recent findings, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations. My older patients, especially, appreciate my thoroughness, organization, and systematic approach to recommended treatment. These letters certainly aren’t handwritten, but the hard copy renders a sense of care that’s transferred from my hands to theirs. We must remember that individuals comprehend and retain information differently. The one-on-one, verbal, treatment consultation can become lost in the shuffle of everyday. Add dental language and complicated procedures to the mix, and that’s simply a recipe for confusion.  

Whenever I present complex treatment to a patient, I write a letter in everyday language to support our conversation. It’s stored in their digital chart as part of their dental record. In my first paragraph, I state my patient’s chief complaint. A summary of clinical findings followed by bullet point. Next, I provide my best treatment recommendation, an appointment sequence, and the financial investment. Photographs are also a helpful insert to aid in explanation for family members who were unable to attend the consultation. I think there’s value in a tangible letter taken home to revisit.  

Treatment letters are also an irreplaceable resource for my team. When a patient calls to schedule treatment previously presented, my stored letter immediately becomes a reference for scheduling appointments, including time allotments and space in-between subsequent visits. In my office, we offer a courtesy for treatment paid in full. This amount is figured in the financial investment portion of my letter so that conversations regarding immediate payment or a payment plan can easily flow. Should a case not be accepted prior to a routine recare visit, this letter serves as an excellent reminder during team huddle. It’s inefficient to page through multiple chart notes and software-driven plans with no explanation of the diagnoses which caused a need for restoration in the first place.  

In my first few years of practice, it was hard for me to accept that I needed to view this document as fluid with a potential need for multiple modifications to suit my patient’s desires and limitations. For example, financial concerns often lead to the need for phased treatment or a compromise from the ideal. I’m committed to openly discussing what may occur if no treatment is rendered or if a compromised approach is chosen. Likewise, I believe in the importance of presenting the financial component of extensive treatment myself. As the dentist and business owner, I must “own” the fee that I’ve carefully determined to reflect indirect and direct time, the skill level and support to be provided by my team, the technical excellence of my laboratory technicians, and my own knowledge. The fee that I present is steadfast, barring an unanticipated need such as root canal therapy. Should there be a need for additional chair-time or visits, it’s included in the quoted fee.  

Finally, my letters include my expectations for post-treatment maintenance. For example, if we are to complete a hybrid case in conjunction with a surgeon, I’m careful to share the importance of periodontal health and frequent maintenance visits to prevent peri-implantitis. In patients who have pre-existing medical conditions that when uncontrolled can be contradictory, I stress the importance of regular monitoring. Ultimately, I strive to empower my patients to choose and achieve oral health, Undoubtedly, oral health positively impacts overall health. My personal letters are a distinguishing trait of my practice that convey the level of care to be carried from presentation through treatment and in maintenance. Consider the value in this extra step! 

 

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What Motivates Dental Teams? 

May 15, 2024 Pina Johnson

By Pina Johnson Professional Certified Coach 

 What motivates teams is a question that has been asked for as long as someone has been seeking solutions for organizational performance. The day of top-down (or command-and-control) leadership is gone.  

Daniel Pink, in his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, takes a deep dive into the decades long effort to understand the research around human motivation in the modern workplace. Consistently, employers believe they are doing a great job of recognizing, rewarding, and motivating their employees. The people that work for them report the opposite. The tension between the two groups is observable and measurable. In this book, Pink discusses the key patterns that are consistent in what motivates people., takes a deep dive into the decades long effort to understand the research around human motivation in the modern workplace. To his credit, he uncovers the key patterns that are consistent in what motivates people. 

What doesn’t work—external rewards and punishments 

Although there are times and places to administer rewards (carrots) and consequences for behaviors that violate the organization’s values (sticks), “carrot and stick” strategies do not work and have not been working for quite some time. In fact, according to a great deal of research, these strategies reduce performance over time after a brief initial improvement when they are introduced.  

What does work—internal motivations 

Research has clearly demonstrated that there are three primary internal motivations that drive team member engagement: 

  1. Autonomy 
  1. Mastery 
  1. Purpose 

Autonomy over your work appears to be the strongest driving force among those three. There are many aspects to autonomy that you can explore in Daniel Pink’s book. My takeaways are that people want: 

  • Control over how they do their work 
  • Ability to creatively enhance the methodology of their work 
  • A strong voice in the direction and future of their work 

This begs the questions:  

  • Have you met individually with each team member and talked about this?  
  • Are you giving them the freedom to do their jobs well?  
  • Are you developing them with training opportunities and direct challenges?  

Responsibility without authority creates frustration. Responsibility demands autonomy. 

Mastery is defined as the desire to get better and better at something that matters. You can feel the natural connection to Autonomy as the desire to improve is based in each person’s unique gifts, talents, skills, and desire to use these for something important.  

Control seeks compliance. Autonomy seeks engagement. When a person becomes fully engaged in an activity, and is challenged enough to be stimulated, they can lose themself in that activity be it work or play. That optimal state of peak performance is described as flow. Mastery happens in and through those experiences of flow. Mastery is a mindset that requires a great deal of grit and becomes the infinite game that we never complete. 

Purpose answers the question for each person: “What are you supposed to do with your one short life?” When the organization has a clear purpose, the individual understands their role in that purpose. When they connect the organization’s purpose to their own life’s purpose, then you have a powerful force at work. Is the purpose of your organization clear? Have you asked the key people in your organization what their purpose is? Have you helped them to connect those two purposes?  

Our responsibility 

As practice owners and leaders, we are people developers. Everyone possesses a unique set of gifts, talents, hopes, dreams, and ultimately a life purpose. Unlocking that unique set of internal motivators for everyone on your team is the key to building an abundant future. That future is defined by a transformational mindset rather than a transactional mindset in which power is limited by time, redundancy, compliance, and efficiency.  

Each person motivates themself. Our role as a leader is to help our team members, one at a time, to discover, connect with, and unleash their powerful internal motivators. Then together, as a team, we can channel all of that discretionary energy into a shared mental model with a laser-like focus on the organization’s clearly defined and stated purpose.  

Pina Johnson PCC is a Certified Professional Coach with the International Coach Federation, and as a former practice administrator, she has over 20 years of experience in the dental field. Her coaching strategy and emphasis lie in developing leadership skills and practice cultures that produce peak-performing teams along with increased productivity and profitability. In her private practice, Pina specializes in group coaching. Partnering with Drs. Joel Small and Edwin (Mac) McDonald at Line of Sight Coaching, she coaches many dental teams with great success, resulting in increased employee engagement, reduced stress, improved performance, and enhanced communication. Pina received her professional coaching certification from the University of California, Davis. Upon completing her training, she was invited back to serve in multiple capacities as a UC Davis coaching program faculty member. Pina has been a featured speaker covering topics including, The Neuroscience of Trust, Management Behaviors that Foster Employee Engagement, and How to Talk So Your Staff Will Listen, and Listen So Your Staff Will Talk. 

Pina is a Member of the American Association of Dental Office Managers, Dental Speaking Consulting Network, Dental Entrepreneur Women, International Coach Federation, and the ICF Sacramento Chapter. 

 

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Partnering in Health Part 1: The Missing Piece 

May 1, 2024 Mary Osborne RDH

By Mary Osborne, RDH 

There was a time when I thought “partnering in health” was just about getting people to take better care of their teeth. 

Many years ago, I had a patient who was excellent with her home care, but she showed up periodically with an acute periodontal infection. We asked about stress and her overall health, but she was not aware of any issues. We would treat the infection and she would be fine for a sometime. We knew she worked for National Public Radio, and one day we made the connection that her infections showed up concurrent with NPR’s fund-raising drives. That shared realization allowed us to help her see that her stress was affecting her dental health and her overall health. She was open to conversations about lifestyle changes that would help her be healthier. My relationship with her influenced my thinking and my ability to connect with my patients from a perspective of Whole-health Dentistry. I came to understand that I had been missing opportunities to influence the way people think and feel about health. I knew that I wanted my patients to see me as “a partner in health.” 

Unfortunately, most of our patients come to us with the perspective that we are fixers of teeth, not partners in health. 

In the culture today people are bombarded with information about what is healthy. From friends and families, social and news media, and a wide variety of health care practitioners, everybody expresses opinions on how they are supposed to take care of themselves. Why, then, are we surprised when our patients don’t know whom to trust? Why are we surprised when they shrug their shoulders or appear confused? It’s not always a case of conflicting facts but a case of various perspectives that people don’t know how to navigate. 

Think about where you place your trust. How do you decide whom to trust about decisions—whether it’s about your health, or about your finances, or about how you raise your children? When I ask myself that question, two criteria surface. They need to know their subject and to know me. I want that person to know what it is they’re talking about. I want them to be well informed. I also want someone who knows me, who understands my values. I want that person to have a sense of who I am and what is important to me. 

As we get to know our patients over the years, most of them come to see us as trusted advisors when it comes to their dental health—but fewer see us as trusted advisors when it comes to their general health. If we jump too quickly to making recommendations about their overall health, we are more likely to meet resistance. If we want to cross the bridge into influencing our patients’ overall health and wellbeing, I believe we need an invitation to cross that bridge.   

The Missing Piece in our quest to influence the overall health of our patients is the failure to invite patients to share their perspectives on health. Beginning a conversation with a new patient with the question, “What can you tell me about your health in general?” is an invitation for them to talk about their experience of their health, not just details. Instead of “reviewing” health histories, what if we “explore” health histories? As we connect and get to know each other we can learn to listen beyond information to hear attitudes, beliefs, fears, biases, concerns, barriers, etc. As you understand their perspectives on health issues that come up in conversation, it’s easy to ask if they would like your perspective on that issue. These conversations often lead to more questions and answers that invite more and more invitations from our patients to be their partner in health. 

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Mary Osborne RDH

Mary is known internationally as a writer and speaker on patient care and communication. Her writing has been acclaimed in respected print and online publications. She is widely known at dental meetings in the U.S., Canada, and Europe as a knowledgeable and dynamic speaker. Her passion for dentistry inspires individuals and groups to bring the best of themselves to their work, and to fully embrace the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.

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How Do You Like to Receive Feedback? 

April 29, 2024 Kelley Brummett DMD

Kelley Brummett, DMD 

Recently, I completed growth conferences with everyone on my team. The beauty of a growth conference is that it’s all about growth. It’s all about effort. It’s all about meeting each other and becoming more aligned with the mission of the practice. If I have something I want to share with a team member that’s a concern or something new I would like them to achieve such as mastery of a new skill, I think about how I’m going to communicate it. And as I do growth conferences with the individuals on my dental team, I am cognizant that they are likely to want to receive feedback differently as individuals.  

I’ve discovered that if I ask my employee upfront how they like to receive feedback, they pause to think before responding. I wait patiently for their response because I know the response will save both of us time and energy. For example, there are some team members who want the short and skinny of it—“Give it to me straight now.” They don’t want you to hold back. There are some team members who need to be gently warmed up before they can hear the message and require thorough explanations of why. 

I’ve discovered it helps to frequently ask the “how do you like feedback” question of my team to get their buy-in of my feedback. The beauty of “feedback” is that even criticism can be framed in a positive way as the next identified step in working towards a goal.  

Those of us in dentistry know that sometimes we move fast, but there are times that we need to sit back, think through what somebody gave us information about, and then come back and have a conversation. Mary Osborne has guided us to have conversations with patients that allow us to slow down and learn more about them so they can think, hear themselves speak, and learn about themselves. I’ve decided the feedback question is also a good question to ask patients. “How do you like to receive information? Would you like to know all the details or for me to summarize?” 

I’ve learned from Mary and experiences with patients that “staying in questions” helps them grow. Staying in questions also helps team members grow. Staying in questions helps us providers grow. So, feedback—how do you give it? How do you like to receive it? How do you handle it? I encourage you to think about this. 

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Kelley Brummett DMD

Dr. Kelley D. Brummett was born and raised in Missouri. She attended the University of Kansas on a full-ride scholarship in springboard diving and received honors for being the Big Eight Diving Champion on the 1 meter springboard in 1988 and in 1992. Dr. Kelley received her BA in communication at the University of Kansas and went on to receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. After practicing nursing, Dr Kelley Brummett went on to earn a degree in Dentistry at the Medical College of Georgia. She has continued her education at the Pankey Institute to further her love of learning and her pursuit to provide quality individual care. Dr. Brummett is a Clinical Instructor at Georgia Regents University and is a member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry. Dr. Brummett and her husband Darin have two children, Sarah and Sam. They have made Newnan their home for the past 9 years. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, reading and playing with her dogs. Dr. Brummett is an active member of the ADA, GDA, AGDA, and an alumni of the Pankey Institute.

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Stories About Stories 

April 22, 2024 J. Michael Rogers, DDS

By Michael (Mike) Rogers, DDS

Close to my office there is a small strip center that includes a realty group and a small church. At one end, there is no sign to show what it is, but it has a drive-through window. Every day there is a significant line of cars going up to that window. Cars line up waiting their turn, and the line is so long the cars snake through the parking lot, out into the street, with hazard lights flashing. 

I have a friend who loves to create stories about what is going on in strangers’ lives. Why is someone driving so fast? What meal are they going to create with food in a shopping cart? Why are two people arguing?  

Fantasized from some level of observation, my friend has captured what this drive-through is all about. He believes that because the drive-through is adjacent to a church, you can pull up to the window and are given a donut along with a prayer. It’s a small ministry for people to have a better day. That’s not a bad narrative but no real basis for the story. I say that as the line of cars grows longer, the prayers gain power. I get a warm feeling of their impact on others. 

I find we make up stories in my office as well. We make them up about why someone didn’t show up for an appointment, why someone didn’t move forward in care that has been advised, or why someone won’t pay a balance. Our tales are based on some level of observation, but they are tales none the less. 

I try to remember to look at these moments in three ways. 

  • What do I know? 
  • What do I think I know? 
  • What do I want to know? 

We practice this in our office. I encourage my team to not live in “what I think I know.” This state of mind too often leads to creating stories that reflect a judgement. If I hear a team member begin to create a narrative based on a circumstance with the phrase “I think…,” I try to politely make them aware of what they are doing. They most certainly recognize when I do it and politely let me know. I just grin to hide my disappointment in myself. Maybe someday, I’ll say, “thank you.” 

In relationship-based practices, we have such marvelous opportunities to help people be healthier. Asking questions about what we’d like to know and sometimes creating self-discovery for the patient as well. We often get repeated moments to connect and learn with each other. The need to make up stories is dissolved when we get to hear their story. Sometimes that story is fun, other times hard. We get to walk along that story with them. What a gift to live a life in that connection! 

Recently, a member of the realty group on one end of the strip center came in to see me. I couldn’t resist asking what the line of cars is about. It turns out it is an Ignition Interlock site for people that have had a recent DUI. You go up to the window for your installation time of the small handheld breathalyzer to prevent your car from starting after drinking alcohol. 

I haven’t shared that with my friend. I like his story better. 

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Dr. Mike Rogers is a graduate of Baylor College of Dentistry. He has spent the last 27 years developing his abilities to restore patients to the dental health they desire. That development includes continuing education exceeding 100+ hours a year, training through The Pankey Institute curriculum and one-on-one training with many of dentistry’s leaders. Dr. Rogers has served as an Assistant Clinical Professor in Restorative Sciences at Baylor College of Dentistry, received a Fellowship in the Academy of General Dentistry and currently serves as Visiting Faculty at The Pankey Institute. He has been practicing for 27 years in Arlington, Texas.

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The Value of Consultants, Coaches, and Mentors in Dental Practice 

April 5, 2024 Gary DeWood, DDS

Gary M. DeWood, DDS, MS 

As an associate dentist, you may be fortunate to learn from the instruction and observation of a senior dentist, but over your career, you will gain innumerable benefits from outside consultants, coaches, and mentors. 

One of my mentors, Dr. Richard A. Green, told me that one of the keys to my success would be to surround myself with a Board of Directors. He was correct. My board is composed of people who are willing and able to see my vision and hold me accountable for going to it. Some are consultants, some are coaches, and some are mentors. Sometimes they are all three in one person but no one person has all the answers. 

Consultants, coaches, and mentors help us in different ways. 

In dental practice, I often hear the words mentor, coach, and consultant used interchangeably to describe the activities of someone assisting the doctor with the management of his or her practice. I believe that these functions, while not mutually exclusive of the same individual, are different in their roles with regard to all three of you. 

What do I mean by that? “You #1” is the entrepreneur and leader of the business you have established. “You #2” is the manager of that business. “You #3” is the dentist working in the business. Each you possesses a different level of training, understanding, and ability. Each you benefits differently from consulting, coaching, and mentoring. 

Early in practice my partner and I hired consultants to see what escaped us and to give us solutions.  

Consulting is all about being an outsider looking in. The adage that consultants are individuals who are paid a lot of money to tell you what you already knew but couldn’t see, does not diminish their effectiveness or necessity, particularly in offering solutions.  

I met Jim Pride while I was still in dental school. In the early years of our relationship, following the acquisition of our practice, Laura, our Pride consultant, consulted us by telling us what to do. I was directed to employ systems that were developed by Jim Pride and his team while working with many Pride Institute clients. I did as we were “consulted” because I had no reference for individualizing the systems, something that changed as we found the parts and pieces that delivered and left behind parts that did not resonate for us.  

As my partner (who happened to be my wife) and I changed, our expectations changed, and our needs changed, we continued to need that outsider looking in to see for us that which we could not see. We did not, however, need or want to be offered solutions. The best consultants understand that their ultimate goal is to empower and develop their clients’ skills and abilities so that they can eventually operate independently. 

When we no longer needed a consultant, we needed a coach. 

Unlike consulting, where solutions with precise instructions are offered, coaching offered us a process out of which our vision for our practice developed. Dental practice coaches ask questions rather than give answers. They are observers. They take us inside ourselves and assist in our development as leaders. They draw out what is already within and empower us to act on it. 

What, then, is a mentor? 

For me, mentors are individuals who have traveled the path we seek to follow. They may fill the role as a consultant and/or a coach depending on our needs and their comfort with the things that are challenging us at any given time, but frequently their primary role is that of an example. The Pankey Institute community abounds in them. 

I have observed that dentists who develop a relationship with a mentor are able to move more quickly and clearly toward their preferred future. It is precisely for this reason that one of the goals of participation in a study club is to build groups with a broad range of experience and experiences. It is the third YOU, the practicing dentist, who gets the most from being mentored 

Dentistry is a tough job. It’s demanding and stressful to perform highly technical, intricate procedures continuously on a daily basis. Our mentors show us that we can do it because they did. Often there is peer-to-peer collaboration in “surfacing up” the mindset, approaches, and solutions that will work best for us. Always there is encouragement. 

Sometimes mentors listen. Sometimes they challenge. Always they support. Their map is not always the map we choose to follow, but their example–as individuals who continue to see their vision and map their future accordingly–inspires us to do the same. 

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Lifelong Learning Part 1: Change & Process 

March 22, 2024 Gary DeWood, DDS

Gary M. DeWood, DDS, MS 

Learning begins from our first moment of awareness as our eyes open and we have a response to something external to us that is brand new. That experience and all the ones that follow until the moment awareness leaves us to shape our reactions to and our actions in the world. 

Experiential Learning 

The brain is a dynamic and ever-changing organ, constantly adapting to new experiences and knowledge. 

When our youngest daughter Katie was a child, I was cooking dinner one night–my turn–and Katie was sitting at the island where the stove was. I turned around to get something from the cupboard and heard a loud inhale followed by a whimper. Upon turning quickly, I saw her move her hand rapidly behind her back. No more sounds came forth, but I saw a tear and I asked her what was wrong. She said in a wavering voice, “Nothing,” and then looking at the stove burners, “Mom told me those were HOT and never to touch them.”  

I gently took her hand from behind her and saw the blisters rapidly forming on her fingers. She started crying and said to me, “Please don’t tell mom.” I’m certain she never felt the need to verify the information her mother had given her again. THAT is learning. 

All of us have experiences like that every day. Some are memorable and become part of us, embedded in a manner as yet not fully understood inside our brains for almost instant access. Some “learning” seems to fade quickly or never even get recorded. I “touched” a lot of biochemistry information over the years without burning much of anything into my brain. Maybe I should have been touching the stove at the same time. Learning is not simply having an experience of something and then being able to view the recording later.  

The Definition of Learning 

In nearly all of the definitions I have located in my research I see that CHANGE and PROCESS are prominent parts of learning. For example: 

  • A change in disposition or capability that persists over time and is not simply ascribable to processes of natural growth. 
  • Relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behavior due to experience. 
  • A transformative process of taking in information that, when internalized and mixed with what we’ve experienced previously, changes what we know and what we do. 

Choice & Focus 

My personal experiences have shown me that a big part of lifelong learning is what you believe about it and how you embrace it. It’s driven by some measure of choice and focus. 

Cheryl and I have sought out new ideas in dentistry wherever they took us. One of my friends in dental school, a wonderful man whom Cheryl and I still hold close, took a different path. Sometime around the 10th anniversary of our graduation we were visiting, and he told us that he had been able to get all the continuing education he needed without traveling.  

I discovered that his feelings around need and learning as it pertained to dentistry meant satisfying the requirements to stay current with licensure. He is NOT a bad dentist, but like many of the dentists I have come to know in the last 48 years, a hunger for dental learning changed once school was finished.  

A Drive for Learning 

I am reminded of one of the most original and influential thinkers on the creativity process, Robert Fritz, who believed you can create your life in the same way an artist develops a work of art. He said, “If you limit yourself only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want and all that is left is a compromise.” 

As a philosopher and scientist-physician, Dr. L. D. Pankey intentionally observed processes and their results (change) with the goal of becoming better at helping others. The embodiment of compassion, he was highly curious and actively sought ways to alleviate the sufferings and misfortunes of patients and colleagues. He traveled long distances to learn from others’ experiences. He inspired others to know themselves, their patients, and their work on a continuous road of mastery. As a lifelong “leisure” learner, he was interested in a wide range of subjects outside of dentistry as well. Through reflection, he often discovered he could apply this outside learning to his work. 

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Creating Financial Freedom

DATE: March 6 2025 @ 8:00 am - March 8 2025 @ 2:00 pm

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CE HOURS: 16

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Single Occupancy with Ensuite Private Bath (per night): $ 345

Achieving Financial Freedom is Within Your Reach!   Would you like to have less fear, confusion and/or frustration around any aspect of working with money in your life, work, or when…

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Gary DeWood, DDS

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The Pre-Clinical Interview – Part 1 

March 4, 2024 Laura Harkin

The Pre-Clinical Interview – Part 1 

Laura Harkin, DMD, MAGD 

I am a third-generation, restorative dentist in New Holland, Pennsylvania, which may be best known for its blue, New Holland tractors. I own my grandfather’s and father’s dental practice where I am the sole provider for approximately 1,000 patients. My dental team consists of two hygienists, two assistants, and two front office administrators. 

I graduated from dental school in 2008 after short careers both in the actuarial sciences and as a stay-at-home mom. In 2010, I purchased my practice and signed up for my first course at The Pankey Institute. Note, my father also studied at the Institute when it first opened its doors in the early 70’s. One of my greatest challenges, early in my career, was learning how to diagnose oral conditions, develop and present treatment plans, and execute that treatment via phases. I found it quite overwhelming to simultaneously manage multiple, complex cases. Now, I love sharing my experience and the approach I’ve found works best for me. 

Above all, I’ve learned that in the midst of daily pressures in dentistry, we need to maintain our own health and strength to properly treat our patients and lead our teams. Surrounding ourselves with knowledgeable, positive, and compassionate colleagues helps! 

Knowing ourselves is as important as knowing our patient. 

Dr. L. D. Pankey’s Cross of Dentistry supports the belief that knowing oneself is of equal importance to knowing a patient whom we choose to treat. This challenge forever evolves because no person remains unchanged with time. I frequently evaluate my strengths and weaknesses as a provider, team leader, and mentor. At the same time, I ask myself what aspects of patient care and business management I excel at and most love to do. I can then choose my specialist team accordingly and empower my office team to best support me. 

Together we ultimately provide a better product and higher level of care. 

To prepare specifically for the treatment planning process, my team helps me gather key information and clinical records from a patient for a comprehensive evaluation. After a thorough analysis, I carefully craft written documentation which will help educate my patient, my team, and the specialist team I’ve chosen. An added benefit is its ability to serve as legal documentation.  

I always ask a team member to join me during treatment plan presentations. They bring another set of ears and eyes so that we may better understand a patient’s motivating factors as well as the challenges they may face in receiving treatment. We encourage open and honest conversations and understand that treatment plans evolve to fit the needs of individuals. 

How do we get to know our patients? 

In addition to gathering a thorough health history and dental history, we are seeking to learn more about our patient’s chief complaint, perception of their current state of oral health, desires for treatment, and barriers to care. 

We listen intently for clues to identify a patient’s communication style. I’ve always heard that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. I practiced with my father for two years and once, after observing me, he said, “Laura, you do far too much talking. You need to really listen to what your patients are sharing.”  

I’ve had to develop the skill of active listening. To stay in the question and become comfortable with silence takes practice. Some observations that I try to make in order to effectively communicate and build a relationship with a patient are as follows: 

  • Do they seem to enjoy conversing or are they responding with short answers in order to get through the interview quickly? 
  • Do they readily ask questions and express thoughts, or are they quiet and need to be invited and prompted to share? 
  • Are they amiable? 
  • Are they distrustful or fearful due to past dental experiences? 

We need to intentionally verbalize our empathy when we’re in conversation with a patient to help them recognize that they’re being both heard and understood. 

It is beneficial to understand a patient’s background. For example, what have they done in life? What do they love to do? Who is important in their life? Sharing in these conversations will help build a rapport, lead to improved doctor/patient communication, and can help to begin a trusting relationship. 

Does the patient have limitations such as the ability to drive to appointments, afford dentistry, or find time for treatment? Do they need to discuss their oral health condition and treatment options with a trusted family member before making a decision? 

Understanding these answers helps us to not only provide respectful and resourceful solutions but also limit inaccurate assumptions. This knowledge is especially helpful in my third-generation practice, where I have many elderly patients who are dealing with health issues, multiple medical appointments, and scheduled drivers. Their desire is to simply make a careful decision for an oral rehabilitation which fits their objectives and abilities. 

Do we hear the desire for treatment? When speaking with an existing patient, I can often recognize signs of interest to move forward with previously recommended treatment. At that point in time, I often ask, “Why now?” The answer helps me clarify their chief concern(s) so that we can move forward fittingly. 

In Part 2 of this series, we will explore additional techniques to clarify our patient’s desire for oral health and long-term, oral stability. 

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DATE: October 2 2025 @ 8:00 am - October 4 2025 @ 1:30 pm

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Laura Harkin

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