Meet the president

Photography: Nick Cubbin

His name is Hugo Sachs and he is the new head of the Australian Dental Association. Here he talks to Chris Sheedy about his early years, his professional life and what he sees as the future of the industry.

When he returned from service after the Second World War having suffered capture by the Japanese and been held as a POW on the Burma Railway, Hugo Sachs’ father was never the same physically. Yet despite ill health, he worked hard and ended up in a senior executive position with Woolworths.

“Changi was the five-star hotel where my father spent his 21st birthday,” Sachs says. “He worked on the railway where many thousands of POWs met their maker. He came back with the scars of having endured that, but he was still the strongest man I’ve ever known.”

Sachs junior didn’t fall far from that tree. “My brother says I’m very much like my father,” he says. “I’m highly ethical and have a great willingness to serve. My father had a wicked sense of humour, which I’ve probably inherited. The old man used to shoot first and ask questions later, whereas I think I’ve learnt how to listen to the other side. Having said that, I was once nicknamed ‘Six-Gun Sachs’ by a colleague.”

His colleague gave him the nickname because Sachs, like his father, was often unafraid to ask very hard questions of those around him, or to shirk from a fight, although the dentist’s size likely had something to do with it.

Living large

In the schoolyard and on his beloved rugby fields, Sachs would loom over others, standing at six foot six inches. It wasn’t his size that attracted him to the sport, though. In fact, he began playing rugby when he was just five, a youngster growing up in leafy Lane Cove on Sydney’s lower north shore.

As a teenager, Sachs proved he had an intellect to match his physical stature when he earned a place at the renowned James Ruse Agricultural High School. But while he always knew he’d end up working in a profession, Sachs says he probably could have worked harder at school.

“From my primary school days I wasn’t what you would call a studious student,” he smiles. “I would do the bare minimum to get through. I enjoyed life very much and I think my peers, who’d probably refer to me as a big, friendly giant, would undoubtedly agree. I liked to burn the candle at both ends. I’m still a person that lives on very little sleep, and I’ve always worked a minimum 10-hour day.”

Sachs was actually dreaming of an illustrious career in rugby until a freak accident forced him to change course. “If anybody ever asked me what is the one thing I would do differently if I could live my life over, I’d tell them that I never would have jumped off that timber jinker,” Sachs says.

A ‘timber jinker’ is a truck designed to carry and deliver lumber. The truck was not moving at the time, and the 17-year-old Sachs simply jumped off the back and onto the ground.

His colleague gave him the nickname ‘Six-Gun Sachs’ because Sachs, like his father, was often unafraid to ask very hard questions of those around him, or to shirk from a fight.

“I landed on a rock on a slope and I had my leg straight when I hit,” he recalls. “It fractured my acetabulum [pelvis] and dislocated my femur. My mate who was with me told me to get up. I said, ‘Have a look at my leg!’ It was six inches shorter than the other. I won’t repeat the expletive that my friend then used.”

After three operations, much pain and numerous complications, it was clear that Sachs’s rugby career was over.

After the fall

Sachs used his downtime from rugby to study dentistry at the University of Sydney. Upon graduation, he left Sydney and never returned.

“I went to Griffith in New South Wales and spent 12 months there,” he says. “Then the partnership I was working for broke up. I saw a few practices in Sydney and realised I didn’t want to move back there. At the end of 1980, I saw a practice in Harden for just $10,000, and I thought for 10 grand, you could go broke and still pay it back. So, 37 years later here I am!”

Within the next two years, Sachs also set up what was originally a branch practice (now the main practice) in Cootamundra. This was after he realised many of his clients were driving 40 kilometres to Harden.

After completing his Master’s degree in 1992, Sachs received a call from his old friend Shane Fryer, another Cootamundra dentist, who held a senior position within the NSW branch of the ADA. Fryer asked Sachs to consider running for an ADA position during the next branch elections.

“I thought nobody ever gets in on their first try,” he laughs, “so I tossed my name into the hat. There were 21 positions and only 21 people applied.”

Representing the profession

When Sachs first entered the ADA in a branch position, the profession was a very different creature to the one he sees today, as president of the federal body. That’s because associations worldwide are facing significant challenges compared to days gone by.

“You’ve got a significant change in employment arrangements from when I was first in dental politics,” he says. “It used to be that 80 to 85 per cent of members were self-employed or in partnerships. Today, that number falls below 40 per cent. So, we have a significant number of employed dentists under a corporate banner and significant impact from third parties, particularly private health insurers.

“Currently we have an oversupply of dentists based on demand for services. We have a young cohort who come out of university with significant debt and meanwhile, the capacity to earn a reasonable living is diminishing in comparison to what it was like when I was at that stage.”

Sachs continues: “Commission rates have reduced from 45 per cent to as low as 25 per cent. We still have a level of overseas dentists coming to Australia seeking to provide their skills. Fortunately, we did close down—to a certain degree—the 457 visa issue with constant lobbying; that was a step in the right direction.”

“You’ve got a significant change in employment arrangements from when I was first in dental politics. It used to be that 80 to 85 per cent of members were self-employed or in partnerships. Today, that number falls below 40 per cent.”

There is no ignoring the fact, Sachs says, that there were five dental schools when he graduated and now there are at least 11, as well as an expansion of ancillary dental care providers producing ever greater numbers of dental professionals all competing with the large number of graduates for the same demand for dental services.

What else is having an effect on the industry as a whole? There is the fact that private insurers are setting up their own clinics we did close down, to a certain degree, the 457 visa issue with constant lobbying—that was a step in the right direction.”

There is no ignoring the fact, Sachs says, that there were five dental schools when he graduated and now there are at least 11, as well as an expansion of ancillary dental care providers producing ever greater numbers of dental all competing with the large number of graudates for the same demand for dental services.

What else is having an effect on the industry as a whole? There is the fact that private insurers are setting up their own clinics, Sach says. “I believe, as do the rest of us in the federal executive, that this is a conflict of interest.

“We have a provider of treatment that is also the determinant of what treatment a patient might be allowed to receive. That clinic’s priority is to return a profit to the owners of their organisation. We don’t see how private health insurers operating their own clinics can split that divide. We believe we’re moving towards a scenario of managed care, as we’ve seen in America, where people’s health is compromised and standards of treatment are sometimes appalling.”

With so many major issues to manage, how does the ADA prioritise its goals? It begins with a survey of its membership and of consumers, Sachs explains. For instance, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of differential rebates, particularly from ‘preferred providers’. But they are also aware that this rebate differential is taking away their freedom of choice.

“This is something that we’re trying to push home to government and to those in opposition, that these inequities are not good for the consumer and they’re also not good for competition.”

In the current political environment in which it appears to be becoming more difficult for governments to fund health care in general, these problems will only likely become greater challenges.

What, then, would Sachs like to achieve during his presidency? “I think that in any organisation the challenges are immense and you’re a fool if you think you’re going to satisfy everybody,” he says. “But there are things that we can change to improve the performance of our organisation in order to create better oral health outcomes for Australians and to further build the image of dentists. These are paramount in my mind.”

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