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Dental profession veteran Dr Phillip Palmer has taken on a new role as a mediator in dental practice disputes and claims the great demand is among dysfunctional partnerships. By John Burfitt
Early in 2021, veteran Sydney dentist Dr Phillip Palmer decided to retire, having devoted over half a century of his life to running dental businesses. But Dr Palmer’s idea of retirement is a world away from most other dentists. He had already spent 25 years heading up the dental business consultancy Prime Practice, and before that had run a variety of his own dental clinics. When deciding to retire, Dr Palmer wanted to close those doors.
Even so, he felt he wasn’t entirely done with the profession he has been actively involved with since graduating from the University of Sydney in 1971.
Looking to see where the greatest need currently exists within dentistry, he soon focused on the issue of conflict resolution. With that, his new company Dental Mediation was born, and next month—March 2022—marks its first anniversary of being in business.
“I’ve always seen myself as a problem solver and in our profession, I like to help solve problems so dentists have minimal stress and work as well as they can,” he says.
The mediation process is nothing new to Dr Palmer, as it’s something he was often called to do with Prime Practice clients. These days, he’s accredited with the Australian Disputes Centre. “It’s definitely become more common to find disputes arising among dentists in partnerships, which sometimes simmer under the surface, causing considerable stress and other times blow up into major issues as well as break-ups,” he says.
“In most of those situations, mediation between the parties could have prevented the problem from getting so out of hand. But there’s an embarrassment with some dentists to go into mediation. They would rather struggle on with the problem, hoping it will somehow go away. There could be a far bigger role for mediation in our profession, if people just understood how it worked.”
According to the Federal Court of Australia, mediation is defined as a structured negotiation process in which an independent person, known as a mediator, assists the parties to identify and assess options and negotiate an agreement to resolve their dispute. Mediation is a preferred alternative to a judge imposing a decision. It is far cheaper, faster, and less combative than taking legal action. It is also completely confidential.
The court also states factors that may indicate a dispute is suited to mediation include a willingness for both parties to participate, the need to find a way to preserve their existing relationship and the potential for a negotiated outcome that better suits the needs and interests of the parties than taking it to court.
From the meditation work he has conducted in recent years, Dr Palmer says there’s a range of issues that can regularly arise in the dental workplace.
Where fights start
Disputes in partnerships remain the main arena. One of the most common scenarios is when two dentists who have each been running their own business decide to go into partnership together, only to come up against each other’s egos when sharing the role of being the boss.
Another is when a senior dentist sells up to a junior dentist but stays on under an arrangement with the new owner, only to complain incessantly about any changes being made to the business. “I have seen some situations where the clash is so bad the older dentist will eventually storm out,” Dr Palmer reveals. “That’s not a way anyone wants to end their career.”
Another problematic situation is when the practice manager is the life partner of one of the principal dentists, and workplace dynamics transform into one dentist and their life partner being constantly pitted against the other dentist in all decisions. There also can be personality clashes when two people end up in business together—usually through a previous partner selling out to a new dentist—and the new team proves incompatible.
Dr Palmer says in all such situations, there are distinct advantages of working with a mediator instead of taking legal action.
“I have seen enough times when there’s lawyers involved, and the lawyers don’t have a clue about what dentistry is about or the significance of the issues,” he says. “I’m in a unique position as I have worked in almost every situation imaginable in the dental profession—in good partnership arrangements and bad ones—and had multiple practices, so I completely understand these issues. And with the right approach, I believe they can mostly be sorted out.”
He explains it’s up to the mediator to separate all the issues out and identify the main points, what it will take to resolve them, and how the two sides could work together into the future.
“What I always find interesting is that once an issue has been brought to the surface and discussed, it’s often not as bad as people think,” he says. “People often will magnify issues in their own minds, and once they have been talked through, that’s when progress can be made.”
At the end of the mediation process, Dr Palmer regularly has both sides write out their version of the plan for moving forward, and he does the same. “If the process has worked, then all three should be identical,” he says. “It’s about determining new ways of working together, which might involve a simple tweak of a practice process or a significant change in how they communicate. But it is something both need to be prepared to commit to in order to make the deal work.”
Of the disputes he has been involved with, Dr Palmer claims about 85 per cent have been resolved through mediation. “This is so much cheaper than splitting up and going their own ways to start over again. If everyone is prepared to be reasonable, then mediation stands a very good chance of working. The cost of continuing to work together while hating each other is also massive in terms of stress.”
Accountability to the resolutions agreed upon is the key to ensuring an improvement in the workplace for both sides. “That is written into the new agreement in case things do not proceed as they both agreed,” he says. “In the main, most people want to work and so they just get on and do it.”
There are the cases, however, when one side isn’t committed to mediation or a resolution and just wants out. He says that’s when tougher decisions need to be made.
“Then it has gone too far and that’s when they need to talk about how they will go their separate ways,” he says. “That can also be discussed through mediation—how to make it as clean as possible.”
That situation, he adds, is a minority of the cases he’s seen. Far stronger has been the desire to make a bad situation work so that it’s easier for everyone—not just the dentists but the rest of the practice team as well.
“When the principal dentists get on better, that filters down through the rest of the business in so many ways, and some warmth starts coming back into all the relationships in the practice,” he says. “Things do resolve with a commitment to the mediation process, and that makes for a far better place for everyone to work in.”