Pulp Nonfiction: Dr. Phil S. Sanders Kyle Patton, Editorial Assistant, Dentaltown Magazine


by Kyle Patton, Editorial Assistant, Dentaltown Magazine

At a Glance
Name: Phil S. Sanders, DDS, FAGD
Location: Kinston, North Carolina, population 21,677
Alma Matter: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, class of 1960. Go Tar Heels.
Years Practicing: Longer than you’ve been alive, kid.

Dr. Phil S. Sanders has practiced dentistry for 54 years and practiced it well. If Julius Caesar was right, and experience is the teacher of all things, then listen up, whippersnappers, because Sanders knows a thing or two about life, dentistry and how to make both work.

I was raised on a farm by a mother and father who had lived through the Great Depression. They were, in my biased opinion, salt-of-the-earth type people. On that farm, we had a 20-acre peach orchard. My dad used to say: “When you sell a bushel of peaches, put an extra peck on top. Always give a man a full measure.”
I am into my 54th year, all in North Carolina except for two years in the Air Force.
Sometime in my first year of practice, I saw a young girl who had very large carious lesions in her four upper incisors. The mother opted for extractions and a flipper partial. So this is what was done. Years later, a dental classmate of mine married that patient. She became his receptionist. She attended some of the same lectures her husband and I would attend. During one of them Dr. Charles Barkley stated we should stop slicking our patients and teach them how to save their teeth. The next moment I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. My friend’s wife, my former patient, loudly and angrily said to me: “You slicked me!” I knew what I had to do. Teaching prevention would become my way of giving a patient a full measure, an extra peck.
Teaching prevention greatly simplified for me the practice of dentistry.
When I started my practice, I had a lot of people who wanted patchwork dentistry and “put out fires” dentistry. Recent graduates were beginning to change that mindset by building complete dentistry practices. This is the way I wanted to practice.
Make a list of books to read about finances. Take courses and read your dental articles, but carefully select them.
I wrote down some goals: To do the very best dentistry I could do. Learn to make accurate diagnoses. Keep learning. Charge the fees that would allow me to run a quality practice. Teach prevention.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s almost every body had dental problems. Wherever I went, when people found out I was dentist, they asked me a lot of questions and told me about their dental experiences. Dentistry was a mystery to them.
Dentists are having to wear too many hats. The most important hat to wear is mastering the basics of dental disease and prevention.
In my youth I felt so totally inadequate. I thought I would probably grow up and work on the farm with my dad, which I really did not want to do. I had often heard my parents say about my older brother, that he would have been a great dentist because he was so neat and particular. One day at dinner, when I was in the 11th grade, my dad asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I instantly said, “I want to be a dentist.” Now I was stuck. In my family and community, once you made a commitment to something you had no choice but to go all the way.
I had watched too many times how my father would pace the floor during a summer storm that threatened our crops. My goal was not so much to make money, but to not worry about money.
Prepare a list of self-improvement books. They are immensely helpful if you’re not afraid of becoming a different person.
Keeping the fees I needed was the hardest goal to reach. Mostly, this is because of insurance companies, especially in the area of periodontics.
Dentists are not paid for educating patients. Also, we find that, when we try to fit our treatments into the insurance scheme, it is not always a perfect fit. Insurance companies have made it so difficult to get paid for the education and for the treatment of periodontal problems.
In the first 10 to 15 years of practice, it was hard to keep up with decay and gum disease.
We used no mask, gloves or eye protection (unless you needed glasses). I would go home with blood under my finger nails. In that day you could safely receive a blood transfusion from most of the compatible patients.
Patient oral conditions, especially periodontal conditions, can overwhelm a dentist. I simplify cases by removing all supra- gingival calculus and debris, teach them some home care and give them three weeks to see how much disease they can heal. After the three weeks, I get them back for re-evaluation. The patients and I are often amazed how little additional treatment is needed in many of the cases. Also, the need for anesthetic is greatly reduced.
Patients may not always use the instruments I teach. I make sure that they understand what plaque looks, feels, sounds and (if necessary) smells like. They will devise their own methods to get the job done.
Old age has taken away a lot of my patients. I do no extractions or endodontics anymore. I do basic preventive and restorative dentistry.
A proper diagnosis increases the chance for a good outcome. I love solving a patient’s problem, having answers as to how to manage the problem and how to educate the patient.
Your main goal is to avoid burnout. The money and future practice improvements will come in their time.
Develop a zero-tolerance policy for bleeding tissues, heavy plaque and decalcified areas.
Conservative periodontics possibly has the lowest overhead of any procedure you do.
All through school I only dreamed of having a nice car and a boat. Because of this mindset, after I got my degree I signed up for a 30-month car payment. There was not much left over from my Air Force salary. I hated that car until we paid it off. And then I loved it. Debt is best used for a place to work and a place to live. These things have a chance to appreciate.
Make sure your partner has the same goal as you do, as to putting your dental business first. My wife has been extremely valuable to me. She often filled in when an assistant is out. She was my personal cheerleader. But I can tell you, a wife (or similar partner) in the office does not always work, so be careful.
You want something to retire to, so develop a passion for a hobby. Mine is golf and I’m shooting below my age. I should wear a skirt when I play; we’ve moved up to the ladies’ tee.

Sanders, an active townie that goes by the online name, preventdoc, held a private practice from 1963 to 2005, before merging with Harvey and Associates. He continues to practice part time. He’s been married to the same woman for as long as he’s been a dentist, 54 glorious years.

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