Reclaiming patient trust
The face of dentistry has changed in Dr. Gary Gilbert’s lifetime. When he opened his first Vancouver business in 1973 with three staff members, he intended to expand and become a practice that catered to everyone.
What occurred instead was that he established the trust of locals, got to know their families on a first-name basis, witnessed the start of dental insurance and began to burn out. He sold the practice in 1979.
“I tried to be everything for everybody—crowns, dentures, prostheses—I got overextended,” said Gilbert. He needed to reset his priorities and identify his passion.
In 1981, Gilbert tried again. “I hung out my shingle with visions this time of limiting the practice to restorative procedures for adult patients,” he said.
There was one treatment room, no jumping from chair to chair, little multitasking and he did most of the procedures himself. He employed several Clark College hygienists over the years. He prided himself on honesty, integrity and trust with his patients. The business flourished for 32 years.
It’s hard to find a boutique dental practice these days, Gilbert claims. Given the high cost of dental school—students can graduate with an excess of tens of thousands of dollars in debt—setting up a practice is cost prohibitive. Dentists and hygienists instead flock to entities with business models that pay for procedures; not always for performance, according to Gilbert. The risk, he says, is that patients may be sold on procedures they don’t yet need.
“As a practicing dentist, I took the words ‘your tooth needs’ out of my vocabulary,” he said. “A good practitioner explains the situation then gives options of what to do.”
Gilbert bristles as he explains how some dentists tell their patients more X-rays, crowns and removal of metal fillings are immediately necessary.
“It is how you say it that makes a difference. I used to phrase it as ‘your tooth is probably headed toward a crown.’ But that didn’t mean the time was now; it could be ready in six months or longer,” he said.
This style of care is what set Gilbert apart from many other dental practices, he said. Giving patients choices such as tools and information to take care of themselves, built a foundation of trust.
“People want the attention. If you give them your time and attention, they will become loyal and dedicated to your practice,” Gilbert said.
Teaching interpersonal skills and best practices for educating the public on how to care for their teeth is part of what Clark College offers. Each year, Dental Hygiene students practice techniques on 2,000 actual patients who visit the clinic from the community. Students perform a variety of procedures and services, including developing radiographs, removing calculus and biofilm from tooth surfaces, managing and treating periodontal conditions, placing and finishing dental restorative materials, applying preventive materials to teeth and more.
Additionally, students participate in oral health sealant exams at regional schools and care for patients at a variety of social service venues such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington, Share House, Russell Street Clinic and Head Start and others.
And the opportunities for learning just got better. In October, the college announced approval from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities to add its first baccalaureate degree.
The new program expands on the current curriculum by emphasizing research and educational methodologies. The dental industry expects students to attain baccalaureate degrees to work in dental sales, public health and research.
Clark will begin offering a Bachelor of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene in fall 2015.
After giving decades of attention to his patients, Gilbert now enjoys retirement life. A longtime amateur photographer, in October he traveled to New England to capture the fiery colors of autumn leaves. Photos from his previous adventures—Egypt, Antarctica, South America, Galápagos Islands—have decorated the walls of his former practice. He sold the business in 2012 to Dr. Amy Pugh, a dentist who has kept the practice small so that she too knows her patients by their first names.
“Having the photographs in the office has proved to be an excellent way of keeping connected to my former patients,” Gilbert said. “I love and care about my former patients and they love and care about me.”
Another way Gilbert keeps in touch with the community, as well as leaving a family legacy, is by donating to Clark College. His gift to Dental Hygiene helps offset some of the financial burden of higher education costs for students, while honoring his family name.
Gilbert’s father, Dr. Robert Gilbert, was a professional luminary and community leader in his time. An optometrist, he ran a small office on Main Street in Vancouver for 40 years. While the city was developing in the 1950s, Robert Gilbert and his peers—such as Ed Firstenburg and Al Koplan—were prominent business and civic-minded leaders. Koplan is the father of Keith Koplan, a longtime Clark College Foundation board member and generous donor.
Gilbert’s father died in 1984 and his mother Grace passed in 1996. Gilbert believes in giving back to a community that has supported his family his entire life.
“I also want other dentists to know that they can step up and give back,” Gilbert said.
Two classrooms in Clark’s newly renovated Dental Hygiene facility are named after the Gilbert family—the Dr. Gary S. Gilbert Family Learning Center.
There is still room in the world for personal service and integrity. Clark students learn this daily as they treat community members with compassionate care. In addition to working with adults, more than 300 children receive free care when the college partners with the Clark County Dental Society during Children’s Dental Health Day. Donors like Gilbert enable students to learn a combination of technical and interpersonal skills that prepares them for their careers.