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Experienced dentists making a difference in Michigan

January 17, 2017

By Jennifer Garvin

Drs. Charles Girard, left, and Ed Mathein

Jackson, Mich. — Golfing. Traveling. Reading.

This is all you’re supposed to do once you retire, right?

Dr. Ed Mathein wasn’t having it.

For 42 years, Dr. Mathein operated a thriving general practice in Jackson before selling it to his longtime partner in 2006. But it wasn’t too long before he was bored. He considered traveling overseas to volunteer, but he also knew there was need closer to home.

That’s where the Center for Family Health Dental Clinic in Jackson, Michigan, came into the picture.

The clinic inquired if he’d be interested in working part-time. He was. Now 74, he spends two days a week at the clinic, giving new meaning to the phrase active retirement.

What’s more, he’s not the only Jackson dentist “enjoying” retirement this way.

“I'm a dentist. Practicing dentistry is my hobby,” said Dr. Charles Girard, 73.

Dr. Jerry Booth, an 80-year-old oral surgeon, who also works at the clinic, agreed: “I always thought I’d do this.”

Dr. Jerry Booth

Drs. Mathein, Girard and Booth make up what AARP calls the “hottest demographic” in the workforce: “men and women working not only past traditional retirement age but into their 70s, 80s and sometimes beyond.” And according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, the top reasons for working past 70 aren’t financial. Indeed, these are stories about dentists who enjoy what they do and want to keep doing it as long as possible. The fact they are doing so in a public health environment is a benefit to all.

“We have a fun team,” Dr. Booth said. “I'm not sure if most retiring dentists think about the federally qualified health center alternative as an option to extend their careers.”

“It’s wonderful to have experienced or seasoned dentists who have dealt with a large variety of dental patient personalities and procedures, particularly with training of dental students and residents,” said Dr. Jane Grover, director, ADA Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention, and former dental director at the clinic. “Health centers in particular benefit from hiring these experienced dentists since they have many patients who have dramatic disease and who better to address their issues than a team with a wealth of experience?”

Dr. Booth began working at the clinic in 2010. He says he probably puts in 60 days a year at the center, usually working 7:30 a.m.–noon, sometimes commuting from his winter home in Florida. Prior to this, he owned an oral surgery practice in Jackson for 46 years that covered all aspects of maxillofacial surgery, including orthodontic surgery and severe facial injuries. He also contracted with the Michigan Department of Corrections for the care of their oral surgery needs.

A few years ago Dr. Girard was recovering from knee surgery when he had the opportunity to sell his practice of 40 years while keeping the staff on with the new owner. He didn’t regret the decision to sell but found he did miss practicing dentistry. He became a substitute dentist, filling in for a few practices, six months or so at a time, while an owner recovered from illness.

The work kept him busy 2-3 days a week but filling in was a strange experience.

“It didn’t feel like it was my practice,” explained Dr. Girard, 73, who started at the clinic in 2015 and now works there two days a week. “It was hard to develop continuity. I felt like I was the back-up quarterback but wasn’t expected to complete a pass.”

Dr. Girard knew Drs. Booth and Mathein—two dentists he respected—worked there after selling their own practices. He found the community health center approach suited his temperament and said he loves working around a group of passionate and like-minded dentists.

Previously the Center for Family Health primarily treated children’s dental needs, but has now grown to a 55,000-square foot facility. Following Medicaid’s expansion under the Affordable Care Act, the center’s dental clinic began treating adults, thus necessitating yet another expansion and in Spring 2016 the clinic opened a dedicated 22,000 square-foot dental facility that boasts 14-24 treatment areas. According to its website, the clinic provides comprehensive preventive, restorative and emergency dental care to all children and adults, regardless of insurance or ability to pay.

For Jackson, a town with a population of 34,000 and part of a county of 170,000, the clinic is a vital component of the area’s health care system. The

town has an unemployment rate of around 10 percent, which rose to around 12 percent at the height of the 2008 recession, according to Dr. Mathein, who also serves as a trustee at the local community college.

“Many of those who lost their jobs were in the mid to late 50s and early 60s and even after the [economy recovered] they were unable to find jobs.”

In addition, he said, many of the county’s citizens have been ravaged by diabetes and seen their oral health decline, he said.

During busy days at the clinic — the dental appointments are often booked months in advance — Dr. Girard said the clinic’s dentists often help each other out either by assisting on tough cases or swapping one out to accommodate another’s strengths. Dr. Booth said he’s often called on to teach dental residents and assist in answering surgical questions. The clinic also has a graduate medical training program that encourages exposure to dental management issues for their students. Pathology, pain management and pre-prosthetic issues are the most common tasks for a typical day and every once in a while Dr. Booth says he’ll help close out a tough case.

“We all help each other out,” said Dr. Girard. “It’s a collaborative effort I really enjoy. We all have the patients’ best interests at heart.”

In regards to working well past the “normal” retirement age, Dr. Mathein says he tells his coworkers to let him know if they see a slippage.

“I tell everyone I want to be monitored. If you see a slippage, please tell me,” he said of his work at the clinic. “So far, everybody’s happy.”

Dr. Booth, who recently turned 80, said he knows he can’t practice dentistry forever but if asked, said he hopes to do it for another 3-5 years.

“I can’t imagine life without it,” said Dr. Booth, adding he’s “always been community oriented.”

Dr. Mathein said he takes the greatest pleasure out of making people smile, from little children during their first dental visits to older adults recapturing their smiles.

Dr. Girard agreed. “The title doctor – you can’t do that from the couch,” he said. “I don’t play golf. There’s nothing I like better than doing dentistry.”