Bailing on Private Practice

Sometime in my teen years, I asked my father why he abandoned his private dental practice in New Mexico to return to military duty. As I recall the short answer was “I was working too hard.” At the time, I was too young to fully understand what that meant, but over the years, I’ve come to appreciate its full import. His longer answer included something about “more opportunities.” Over the years, I’ve put meat on the slim bones of those words—in part by examining and understanding his career.

As a part of this thinking, I have pieced together my view of the life of a small-town solo practitioner dentist in 1960s New Mexico. He was, of course, running a small business: managing employees and expenses, drumming up new clients, dealing with maintenance and having to worry about collections as well. (I’m guessing that dental insurance was virtually unknown in those days.) On top of that, his presence was required any time patients were being seen. He couldn’t take a mental health day, skip out on a lark to go hunting or even leave for a professional education meeting without shutting down the whole office—and reducing his revenue stream.

As young as I was during the period, I remember that he had clinic hours on Saturdays. I have no memory of him being home some other day of the week to make up for that. Of course if there was some emergency with one of his patients, he was the only dentist in the practice, so those calls all came to him. Clearly the practice demanded a lot of his time.

Despite these demands and the fact that he had a young family, he also pursued his hobbies: fishing, hunting, trap shooting and wood working. He was trying to cram a lot of stuff into his life. He was bound to be frustrated.

By contrast with that existence the Army offered a lot of benefits. As a dentist, he would practice in a clinic with other dentists which was managed by a dedicated team (e.g. commanding and executive officers). He started at 8 am and walked out the door at 5 pm every day. There were no weekend hours. Emergency call rotated among all the dentists in the clinic so that he was only on the hook a few weekends a year. Best of all, he got 30 days a year of leave (military talk for vacation). Finally, most Army posts either offered, or were located near, facilities where he could pursue his hobbies. Plus there was a steady salary and a well-defined and government-guaranteed retirement program. On top of all this, there were opportunities for more education.