Friday, December 19, 2014

“It’s Christmas, Clark, and We’re All Miserable”

Most practices experience times when business is slow and, conversely, busy seasons—sometimes even hectic ones. I’ve heard dentists complain when it’s so slow they can’t keep up on the bills. I’ve heard the same individuals complain when it’s too busy because “there are not enough hours in the day.” At one point or another, I’ve been guilty of both laments.

Through the years, I’ve tried to discern a business pattern in the rollercoaster ride of sole proprietorship in order to financially plan a little better “than last time.” Early on, I noticed that the few weeks bracketing the Fourth of July seemed to be unusually slow, so my wife and I scheduled our vacation accordingly. One summer, as the family trip to the mountain lake approached, my office became incredibly busy; all of a sudden teeth were breaking in record numbers while numerous abscesses demanded immediate attention. I’d thought about closing up a day or two early, to get a jump on the summer break, but there was no way. The cabin would have to wait. So I worked my fingers to the bone until the day of our departure. Then I discovered that my retreat in the woods was crawling with more vacationers than crickets.

Although the time with my kids was fun-filled, it was not as relaxing as I would’ve liked, and too soon, I returned to my breakneck pace in the office. However, the workload quickly dropped off just when my vacation’s credit card bills came due.

On another family trip, just as we were pulling away from our home office, my wife, Kate—who also is the practice’s business manager—remembered that she hadn’t put the phones on the answering service. As she unlocked the office door, the phone rang—Murphy’s Law. A patient was calling in dire need. Kate told him to come right over. Not so patiently, our kids waited in, around, over, and under our Griswold-grey Volvo station wagon—complete with dangerously overloaded luggage rack—while I took a radiograph, wrote a couple of scripts, and referred the patient, who hadn’t been in for a regular checkup in three years, to my endodontist.

But Christmas time is different; business always seems to drop off with few exceptions, as when college kids come home. Actually, the parent’s desperation to get them in for a checkup isn’t as pressing as it once was; half of the kids are home through mid-to-late January these days. (I remember when we took first semester finals during the second and third weeks of the new year. We also had to walk through knee-deep snow to get to school, uphill—both ways). And those few folks who do make appointments don’t pay in a timely fashion. After all, they have their own holiday revelries to account for.

But through the years, I’ve learned that none of this matters. The holiday season gives me time to reflect on what is really important: family, friends, and neighbors. I now close the office without any destination in mind. I simply stay home and enjoy life. During this time, I greet each “emergency” not as a chore, but as a service to those in need. It’s no different than the time I donate to impoverished people here and overseas throughout the year. Or, if something comes up, like a snowstorm, I’m free to indulge myself on the ski slopes. Unplanned activities like that are gifts that I can graciously accept without any feeling of abandoning my patients.

So use any free time you’re given to get outside, take a walk, stop to smell the roses (even my book editor grudgingly admits that clichés sometimes come in handy) and just enjoy life. Life is a precious gift that should be especially acknowledged at this time of year.

So, whatever your beliefs may be—and it’s impossible to list them all—I wish you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, and Seasons Greetings to all.

Jim Rhea, DMD

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