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Inside Dentistry
November 2011
Volume 7, Issue 10

Study Clubs:

The Original Social & Professional Network

By Allison M. DiMatteo, BA, MPS, and Margaret Martin, BA, MA

Once characterized by an informal organization and loose agenda but unified by professionals with like-minded interests, dental study clubs have evolved to represent dentistry’s membership-based form of continuing education. The benefits of group study are well known in the academic world. A social support system, shared knowledge and expertise, brainstorming, debating, and exploring questions with peers in a comfortable environment are all advantages of study groups and increase the likelihood of mastering the information. Study groups also provide encouragement, social interaction, and a reason to hold oneself accountable.

Once in the professional world, such a support system is unlikely, particularly in dentistry. Until the development of group practices, dentists practiced privately and independently, usually alone with the exception of an assistant, hygienist, and receptionist. Dentists experienced little to no interaction with colleagues. This issue, however, was resolved with the origination of dental study clubs.

“Traditionally, a study club has been viewed as a group of individuals who meet on a regular basis to better their understanding of the art and science of dentistry,” explains Michael Cohen, DDS, MSD, who founded the Seattle Study Club more than 15 years ago. “Meetings are usually held in the evening with the addition of occasional full-day lectures. The theory behind this conventional model of learning would appear to be the notion that knowledge of a technique or treatment is created through visual and verbal description.”

Dental study clubs have become a popular venue for dentists to broaden their understanding of professional techniques and topics, develop friendships, and share effective skills and expertise. These clubs provide information about new concepts, materials, techniques, devices, and innovative technologies, all while enabling dentists to make valuable and long-lasting professional and social connections.

“Dental study clubs are groups of dental professionals who freely exchange experience, knowledge, challenges, support, resources, networking, and encouragement,” notes Forrest Tower, DDS, a director of the Chicago Dental Study Club. “They provide small informal venues to interact for personalized areas of interest, concern, and networking.”

Dentistry is consistently evolving and changing, with continuous research into every aspect of dentistry and dental materials bringing new discoveries, enhanced techniques, and innovative technologies and materials. Nearly impossible for busy practitioners to master without a reliable and trustworthy background on which to base practical use, dental study clubs provide a medium through which to learn and share the continuum of information that is steadily released.

“This may be generalists or specialists from different areas. Really what makes the study club work is members using a mix of what they personally see in the practice or clinical problems they experience and bringing them in front of a group, where they can also apply reflection from the academic world and what’s published,” comments John D. Wallace, DDS, MD, director of the Dallas Study Club, which is part of the Seattle Study Club network and has 59 members for the 2011–2012 year. “It’s this knowledge of each individual used collectively in a group that adds up to something whole that’s greater than its parts.”

Rather than each individual dentist struggling with each new development, dental study clubs provide the opportunity for dentists and their team members to share their experiences—often otherwise gained through their own trial and error. They can apply newly gained expertise via demonstrations, hands-on training, and lectures from key opinion leaders they respect and likely contributed to bringing to the group.

“Solo practice can be lonely, and study clubs offer a chance to meet with others, share common experiences, and find solutions to everyday dilemmas,” notes Frank Spear, DDS, MSD, founder of the Spear Study Club. “Lectures are great ways to be exposed to new materials or learn more about a topic. Putting it to use, however, is a greater challenge. Study clubs are that vehicle which allows dentists to engage in discussion, debate, and even do hands-on exercises that creates greater confidence to implement a higher percentage of what they are learning.”

“I think the best thing about study clubs is their ability to develop the kind of long-term relationships such that if you’re having a problem in your practice, you’re not intimidated to bring it up and get help,” notes Linda Edgar, DDS, MEd, MAGD, vice president of the Academy of General Dentistry. “That is probably the key difference between having a study club with ongoing support versus just attending a lecture.”

Large or Small, There’s Something for All

There are advantages to both small and large dental study groups. Kathy Coble, business development manager for Darby Dental Supply, LLC, notes that each club has certain criteria for membership, but that most dental study clubs encourage all dentists in their area or specialty to participate. The Exclusive Alliance Membership Program (T.E.A.M) is a program through Darby Dental Supply in which Darby partners with study clubs, dental societies, and dental associations that would like to participate to provide exclusive benefits for their memberships.

“The T.E.A.M. program is designed to help members manage their supply costs through group discounts, rebates, and exclusive promotions, as well as offering educational opportunities,” Coble says. “The program also offers financial benefit to the organization that can be utilized to defer organizational operating costs, fund community charitable programs, continuing education programs, scholarships, etc.”

Most groups begin small, with 10 to 20 members. Smaller groups have the option of offering hands-on clinical operating sessions and, depending on the amount of time involved, each member can accomplish the chosen clinical procedure by the meeting’s end. Small groups have a better chance of securing office space, a clinic, school, or other location with an adequate number of operatories due to its limited number of members. They also have the option of inviting local or regional clinicians for demonstrations or lectures.

“Our success is due to our passion and commitment in knowing the benefits we receive from our efforts,” Tower believes. The Chicago Dental Study Club was started by a group of general dentists after attending seminars and coursework conducted by Peter Dawson, DDS. Following Dawson’s seminars, they wanted to form a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to advance their skills and knowledge. “The Chicago Dental Study Club meets three times a year, and our club meetings are a full day long. This allows for greater subject depth. In addition to our member presentations, we have guest speakers from various backgrounds presenting dental, medical, and technical topics. Keeping our club to a maximum of 18 members allows easier, informal, and impromptu discussions.”

Edgar finds that dental study clubs serve as opportunities for older dentists to mentor younger dentists in a safe environment where they can teach leadership, encourage others, and help them resolve problems they face. In the study club environment, members are willing to share not only their successes, but their failures, she says.

“That probably is the key to a small study club,” Edgar believes. “In a big group, you just don’t get that feeling of safeness and willingness to share.”

Wallace shares a similar perspective, noting that dental study clubs provide an opportunity for dentists to commiserate on similar problems, in addition to providing a strong local and national referral network. He says study club members feel more comfortable referring patients to professionals they know are members of the same or other study clubs and, therefore, committed to an educational process.

“Being committed to an educational process helps many dentists differentiate the type of practice they’re working with,” Wallace explains.

Academy of General Dentistry Study Clubs

The AGD has several PACE (Program Approval for Continuing Education) approved study clubs in the United States and Canada at which members may attend lectures or hands-on participation courses. To earn Fellowship in the AGD, members must maintain 36 months of continuous membership, take and pass a comprehensive examination, and earn 500 hours of approved continuing education (CE).

Once Fellowship has been attained, members may then earn Mastership in the AGD. Mastership requires earning an additional 600 hours of approved CE; of this, 400 hours must be hands-on courses, Edgar explains. Some AGD Mastership study clubs (called MasterTrack) meet four times a year for two to four days, combining lectures with hands-on coursework, as well as requiring participants to complete case presentations demonstrating the skills they’ve learned. It takes approximately five years to attain the Mastership level following this process. There also is a Lifelong Learning and Service Recognition (LLSR). The LLSR is presented only to AGD members who have gone above and beyond earning the association’s highest honor of Mastership. The LLSR requires completion of at least 1,600 hours of continuing dental education and at least 100 hours of dental-related community or volunteer service, Edgar says.

“Differentiating AGD study clubs from others is the commitment to continuing education demonstrated by the dentists involved, all of whom are dedicated to improving their quality of service to patients,” Edgar says.

The Seattle Study Club

According to Cohen, the Seattle Study Club stands in sharp contrast to the conventional theory of learning. At its core are three major principles. The first is the philosophy that neither ideal learning nor ideal dentistry can be attained by random exposure to various techniques and treatment modalities, even if those techniques, taken individually, represent “state-of-the-art” treatment. Rather, the highest and most beneficial knowledge and treatment results from total case management—an appreciation of the “big picture” and a true understanding of the role any given technique or treatment plays in that picture, he says.

“The second principle is that we learn more by participation and clinical interaction than by observation,” Cohen elaborates. “Through ‘hands-on’ experience in clinical sessions, club members enhance their treatment planning skills and learn how to bring an ‘expert’s’ touch to the type of cases they treat every day.”

The third principle is that learning with and from one’s peers in a structured and supportive environment is the most effective way to master the challenges posed by the dental profession. The study club provides a forum for a comprehensive curriculum incorporating all aspects of clinical, didactic, and academic learning.

The Seattle Study Club has been conceived to function as a “University Without Walls” for its members, providing all of the resources that are normally available in a university setting. Individual clubs are led by directors (deans), who invite dentists in their community to participate in the club. The directors also select an advisory board (faculty), which includes specialists who act as a support network for members in need. Advisory board members provide guidance and direction in treatment planning sessions and also make themselves available to help problem-solve for members who face difficult treatment challenges. Most Seattle Study Clubs meet nine or 10 times a year, and there are usually two to three full-day lectures and seven to eight evening sessions. In addition to lectures, there are clinical sessions designed to test a member’s understanding of information acquired in the lectures. These clinical sessions include comprehensive treatment planning, problem-solving workshops, and evenings of clinical discussion where members talk about current dental issues that would not normally be addressed anywhere else. Current areas of interest also include programs on management of patients with heart disease and diabetes.

The core and essence of Seattle Study Club programming is Interdisciplinary Comprehensive Treatment Planning, Cohen says. Specialists and general practitioners in each club pool their vast knowledge and experience in a collaborative setting to design multiple treatment options, ultimately with the patient as the beneficiary.

One of the important benefits in belonging to a Seattle Study Club is that members set their own learning timeline in a safe, non-threatening environment. Although lectures are an important part of the program, the power of the study club comes in the ability to draw on the greatest resource available—each other. Study clubs are most successful when members learn from members.

“The Seattle Study Club is similar to other study clubs in that we provide a source for continuing education on a monthly basis, year in and year out. For the most part, this is where the similarities end,” Cohen notes. “The name ‘study club’ is really a misnomer where the Seattle Study Club is concerned. It is a well-rounded comprehensive curriculum for dentists who don’t have the luxury of being back in school.”

Cohen explains that in most study clubs, program content is conceived in providing a series of single “one-off” sessions that do not necessarily relate to each other. Seattle Study Club programming is based upon designing a schedule around a theme, where most of the programs relate to each other so the end goal is synergistic in nature. Attending a few programs will only benefit the participant to the extent of the value of the information presented in those sessions alone, he says. However, attending all sessions provides acquired knowledge that is greater than the sum of the parts, Cohen elaborates.

The Spear Study Club

The Spear Study Club provides its specialist leaders with a turnkey operation, which includes a seminar with Spear in Scottsdale, Arizona. The club also selects eight learning modules from the Spear Study Club library, which cover a wide variety of topics. The individual club can pick the ones that address what they would most like to learn.

“These learning modules are presented with interactive DVDs and guided discussion, and each comes with a full set of resource documents,” Spear explains. “For instance, each of the interdisciplinary learning modules comes with a set of study casts, all the pretreatment records, case history, and all of the posttreatment documentation.”

Members then can discuss all the aspects of the case from each of the different perspectives in the room, from general practitioner to specialist alike, Spear says. The learning modules are integrated with the Spear Study Club curriculum, so the message in its courses, online CE programs, and in the study clubs is consistent. “We know that consistency is also a key piece in the dentist’s ability to fully put to use what they are learning,” Spear adds.

The Spear Study Club provides a system that is easy to implement, Spear adds. It reflects an understanding of how small learning groups work, and incorporates a clinical curriculum that is very highly evolved. The study clubs and courses are designed so that dentists at any stage of their career and any level of ability can benefit immensely by participating, he adds.

Differentiating the Spear Study Club from others is the integration in every aspect of its learning system and curriculum, as well as the intimacy it provides, Spear believes. Members can learn at home or in Scottsdale, and the message is congruent and consistent, enabling them to implement what they learn and provide higher levels of service. Repetition is critical to success, and Spear says his study club offers many different ways to learn, whether in the study club, courses in Scottsdale, through DVDs, or the club’s online CE program.

“We really encourage our study clubs to not have more than 10 to 12 members, which is an ideal size for a learning group,” Spear says. “Larger groups lose the closeness and levels of trust and are much less effective. People learn in a group when they feel safe, and we guide our leaders to create that safe, trusting environment.”

Strategies for Study Club Success

There are several distinctions between an effective dental study club and one that is ineffectual. A successful study club requires strong leadership and mandatory attendance, as well as an attendance fee for each member.

“The T.E.A.M. Program has been highly successful by allowing doctors the ability to access the expertise of Darby Dental Supply through their affiliation with their organization,” Coble observes. “Through this program, Darby has been able to provide beneficial service and pricing to the members while enhancing the organization’s efforts through our many areas of educational and financial support.”

A balance between continuing education and socialization guarantees something for everyone, including spouses and significant others who are often invited to meetings. Including family members at certain meetings tends to increase member commitment and adds stability to the group by encouraging acquaintances between member’s spouses, resulting in a deeper overall connection.

“We try to vary our topics to cover all different areas of dentistry, including nonclinical topics and those that allow us to involve the whole staff,” Wallace says, adding that the Dallas Study Club membership represents a balance among specialists and general dentists.

According to Spear, his study clubs encourage specialists and general practitioners to understand that working together can be satisfying, fun, and rewarding. He explains that there is often a mystique around specialists that can be troublesome to general dentists, adding that most dentists were not taught in dental school how that relationship can work to benefit everyone, most importantly the patient. “We create an environment where specialists can learn more about the challenges the general practitioner faces and general dentists can learn how specialists can help them be more successful,” he says.

While a portion of the meeting should be dedicated to socializing, the time reserved for educational purposes should include the most respected speakers regardless of cost, and always include up-to-date topics, techniques, innovations, materials, or technologies, with time set aside for questions and discussion.

“In the Chicago Dental Study Club, all topics are considered. Our planning committee screens topic submissions for relevance, continuity, and to avoid duplicity to provide a meaningful meeting,” says Tower. “While we welcome dental professionals from all educational backgrounds and treatment theory, our emphasis and core is in the Peter Dawson and Pankey philosophies of occlusion and practice.”

How discussion topics are selected is the critical piece of success for longevity in study clubs, Spear emphasizes. Spear Study Clubs are designed as smaller, more intimate learning groups, using a model in which a specialist leader chooses between six to 10 restorative colleagues and perhaps a complimentary specialist(s) who commit to at least a year of learning together. Another fundamental of successful adult learning is choosing the topics members would most like to learn, he adds.

“We suggest that the best members of a club are those who have a genuine interest in growing professionally,” Spear believes. “When people choose what they want to learn, they are more likely to implement it.”

The Seattle Study Club also has many resources available in designing its curriculum each year, such as member feedback; advisory board recommendations; information derived from needs assessment surveys; networking with directors of other clubs; and ideas taken from the Seattle Study Club annual meeting, Cohen notes.

Socializing and the Study Club Scene

According to Coble, a dental study club is a group of dental professionals typically from a specific geographic area who have banded together to network and further enhance their dental expertise through continuing education, as well as to provide community services through their group effort. Dental study clubs allow members to socialize and network with their peers, as well as work together to serve their community in charitable efforts, she adds.

In the Washington state area, the AGD study club coursework has been coupled with helping the underserved, Edgar says. For example, last spring the AGD’s Oral Surgery Study Club performed 100 extractions overseen by a specialist in the Union Gospel Mission after undergoing education and hands-on education.

The distinction between social networking clubs and continuing education forums is based on each individual dental study club. Equally important as the educational training and knowledge gained from joining a study club, the social aspect allows members to connect on a personal level, forming friendships and mentorship relationships.

“The biggest benefit outside of the learning is support and accountability. Our club members become great friends, they help one another with cases and practice management issues, and often travel to courses together,” Spear says of his study club. “They also hold members accountable for being great club members.”

Besides providing an amicable setting, a group rapport produces a support system in which members feel comfortable asking questions, sharing ideas and experiences, and brainstorming. This reinforces the learning environment and encourages commitment to the club.

“My journey over the last 20 years started in a study club, and I am still with these people and today I’m a national officer in the AGD. One of the people in the study club is one of the trustees for Washington. Others are working in the University of Washington program,” Edgar says. “Dental study clubs seem to draw your leaders, your givers, and those individuals who want to make things better for not only patients, but the profession. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s a ‘Let me help you’ thing.”

According to Cohen, it is understood today more than ever that running a successful dental practice is more than displaying technical expertise. In most cases, success results from mastering practice leadership, management, and making a real connection with people—both staff and patients, he emphasizes.

“The success of the Seattle Study Club is found in its desire to help those who touch it develop to their maximum potential in life. It is not just about dentistry,” Cohen asserts. “It is about the balance struck between professional and personal life experience. The two are intertwined and really cannot be separated.”


In many cases, once dentists graduate from dental school and begin building their own private practices, isolation from other dentists can make it difficult to keep up with the latest changes and developments within the profession. Dental study clubs are an ideal way to develop relationships with colleagues and benefit from each other’s knowledge, cultivate social relationships, and keep abreast of clinically proven, state-of-the-art approaches to treatment.

“Study clubs are most successful when members learn from members,” Cohen emphasizes. “One of the important benefits in belonging to a Seattle Study Club is that members set their own learning timeline in a safe, non-threatening environment. Although lectures are an important part of the program, the power of the study club comes in the ability to draw on the greatest resource available—each other.”

Wallace notes his concern that there are dentists who haven’t taken an active part in continuing education since they finished dental school, whether it be three years or thirty years, and who continue to repeat the same process over and over again because it is uncomfortable to do something new. Bringing in the latest and greatest speakers is an integral and essential part of study clubs that helps a practitioner continue to advance their practice, and the socialization makes it more inviting to move into the education, he says.

“It’s a lot of commitment to take a weekend and go to a lecture or hands-on course, but you will be more successful because you’ll be more efficient and do things better,” Edgar says. “Treatments won’t have to be redone because you will know how to treat your patients.”

“The bottom line is that everyone becomes more confident and more competent, they have more fun in practice, and they are more productive and profitable,” notes Spear.

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