When dentist Lisa Ellingsen tells people her specialty – endodontics – some stare back blankly.
Then she explains she does root canals, and they screw up their faces in feigned horror.
“Root canals are a lot of people’s worst nightmare,” Ellingsen says. “But that’s because they associate the pain they’re already feeling with the procedure itself, which shouldn’t be painful. It’s what eliminates the pain.”
Ellingsen joined her sister-in-law Michelle Elllingsen’s Spokane Valley endodontic practice a decade ago. Now she’s next in line to become president of the Spokane District Dental Society, which is hosting this week’s Inland Northwest Dental Conference at the Spokane Convention Center.
The conference will draw 1,200 participants and 30 speakers, including “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” author John Gray, who will address how to get what you want at work.
During a recent interview, Ellingsen discussed what drew her to dentistry, challenges the profession faces, and typical mistakes people make when it comes to maintaining their teeth.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Ellingsen: Here in Spokane. I went to Lewis and Clark.
S-R: What career did you envision for yourself back then?
Ellingsen: Architecture caught my eye, and also physical therapy. I got more interested in dentistry when one of my brothers was in dental school. When I was 19 or 20, I watched his master’s presentation, and a classmate’s presentation on cleft palate, and I was fascinated by how much impact a dentist can have on somebody’s life. That’s what turned me toward dentistry.
S-R: When did you decide to specialize in endodontics?
Ellingsen: Not until after I’d finished four years in dental school and was doing my residency in general dentistry. Originally I thought it would be intriguing to do a little bit of everything, but then I decided I’d rather do one thing really well.
S-R: So how many years of postgraduate work did you do?
Ellingsen: A total of seven, plus I taught at the University of Michigan for one year.
S-R: How much did all that cost?
Ellingsen: Between $80,000 and $100,000, including books and living expenses. And I was paid when I was a resident at the University of Michigan.
S-R: How much would it cost today?
Ellingsen: I know people who are into it for $250,000 to $300,000.
S-R: What skills learned outside of dental school proved useful in your practice?
Ellingsen: LC was a great melting pot. That taught me how to make a broad range of people comfortable.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Ellingsen: Dr. Dick McCoy. He came here from the University of Washington dental school to help start the RIDE (Regional Initiatives in Dental Education) program and was an amazing teacher. His attention to detail was complemented by his ability to see the big picture – to appreciate students’ strengths and where they needed help.
S-R: Did the recession have an impact on your business?
Ellingsen: Absolutely. Another thing that has affected specialists and general practitioners alike is insurance companies’ efforts to insert themselves into the decision-making process and dictate what treatments we can provide. As a result, dentists today write off an average of 15 to 30 percent of their procedures.
S-R: How much does a root canal cost?
Ellingsen: Anywhere from $500 to $2,000, depending on the specific tooth and type of procedure needed.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Ellingsen: The details of what I do, and helping patients get out of pain.
S-R: What do you like least?
Ellingsen: The fact that most people are super scared to be here. When they’re hurting, it’s hard to pull people off the ceiling and get them comfortable with what’s going to happen.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for a dental career?
Ellingsen: Somebody who’s a hard worker, detail-oriented and wants to help people.
S-R: Looking back over the past decade, what’s been your biggest surprise?
Ellingsen: The business aspect. I had no background or training in managing employees, insurance – all that stuff. I was lucky because I joined my sister-in-law’s practice, and she’d already paid her dues. Now they’re starting to teach that at dental school.
S-R: Will they also teach that at the Inland Northwest Dental Conference?
Ellingsen: Yes. There’s everything from business management and how to work with insurance companies to specific clinical procedures.
S-R: Do you have competitors?
Ellingsen: Yes, there are other endodontists in this area. But we all cover for each other and work together. And we’re referral based, so we don’t depend on the public to just walk in.
S-R: Has the client pool changed during the past decade?
Ellingsen: I don’t know that it’s changed, but it’s gotten smaller as money has gotten tighter for people and they’re making different decisions about treating teeth.
S-R: What challenges do you see ahead?
Ellingsen: I anticipate more battles with the insurance industry as dentists try to maintain their autonomy and provide better care for their patients.
S-R: What are typical mistakes people make regarding their teeth?
Ellingsen: They procrastinate about dental care. If something is hurting, they don’t want to know why. But usually the more proactive you are, the less work you have to have done.
S-R: As a dentist, do you reflexively notice people’s teeth?
Ellingsen: I’m definitely aware of how they look, although I try not to focus on that. But when people find out I’m a dentist, some turn away or cover their mouth so I can’t see their smile.
S-R: What is the general state of Americans’ teeth?
Ellingsen: I’d say pretty good. We’re doing a much better job than some other countries.
S-R: Such as?
Ellingsen: (laughs) We’re not going there.
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