Rick (00:27) Good morning, Dr. Christensen. I have been looking forward to this podcast for weeks. When Chuck and I had the list of the 32 Most Influential, there were a couple that we kind of argued over as to who we get to interview, and I won the coin toss on you. So, I really am very pleased. I always start with an intro, and so I’m going to embarrass you a little bit.
Rick (00:58) I did some looking around on the Internet, and I found that Senator Orrin Hatch read a tribute to you to President Barack Obama in 2015. I want to read a couple of the highlights from that.
Rick (01:15) “Mr. President, it’s an honor today to pay tribute to a renowned educator and highly regarded Prosthodontist, Dr. Gordon J. Christensen. In 1976, Dr. Christensen and his wife, Dr. Rella Christensen, a well-respected dental consultant, started Clinical Research Associates, now known as the CR Foundation. He’s presently serving as CR’s chief executive officer and is a member of the board of directors. Dr. Christensen and his wife volunteer full time for CR to conduct research in all areas of dentistry. The Christensen’s published the findings of their research in the Gordon J. Christensen Clinicians Report a publication of the CR Foundation. The Clinicians Report is translated in seven languages and distributed to more than 100,000 dentists across 92 countries. Dr. Christensen also founded and directs Practical Clinical Courses (PCC) in Utah, an international consulting and educational organization providing courses and videos for dental professionals. In connection with PCC, he’s presented over 45,000 hours of CEs throughout the world. As a frequent contributor to professional journals, Dr. Christensen holds editorial positions with 10 dental publications. He’s also the recipient of many fellowships, masterships and diplomas from various dental specialties and organizations worldwide. After more than 55 years in private practice, Dr. Christensen remains active in treating patients. He continues to influence dentistry across the world through his continuing education lectures and the Clinicians Report. He is truly one of dentistry’s great leaders, and it is with great respect, gratitude, admiration and affection that I paid tribute to Dr. Gordon J. Christensen”. So, anyone in the dental business knows exactly who you are, but for the non-dental people, I think I can summarize it by saying if there was a Babe Ruth of dentistry, you are probably him.
Rick (03:14) So, welcome to the podcast and thank you so much for your time. I’d like to get started with a couple of questions.
Rick (03:31) First of all, we talked as we were warming up about COVID, and I’m curious as to where the podcasters find you, where are you today and how are you adapting to the new COVID realities?
Gordon (03:47) As you know Rick, I’m also a psychologist and the psych literature is just totally filled with negativity about virtual learning. I know we’re stuck with it. I went from traveling 2-3 times a week and seeing face to face somewhere between 40,000 – 60,000 dentists per year to the point where its like now.
Gordon (04:13) You’re somewhere and I’m somewhere, but the bottom line is when you get a group of people on podcasts like this, you’re talking to the wall.
Gordon (04:29) So, the adaptation has been horrendous. To not have the eye to eye contact or any gestures, it’s just a talking head. So, in all of our courses and events, we’ve tried to not have talking heads. We’ve integrated some of our mentors, they’re the people who teach with me and they’re also volunteers. They’re all over North America and that has helped. We’re also doing a lot of the chat – of course, Zoom, as you know, is one of the better platforms.
Gordon (05:15) We’ve stayed relatively stable and financially stable, even though we’re a nonprofit. It has been unprecedented, let’s say that.
Rick (05:25) No question.
Rick (05:28) Can you tell us where you grew up? How many siblings? Tell us a little about growing up Christensen.
Gordon (05:36) I grew up in a very blue-collar family. My father was a carpenter and he gradually got into being a leader in a sugar factory, Beach Trigger factory.
Gordon (05:48) So, I grew up in a little tiny house with an outside toilet back in the thirties and it was quite an experience.
Gordon (05:59) I was in northern Utah, in a very small town called Lewiston. My mother was highly motivated that I would have some education and so was my brother. I had one older brother and he served in World War II. He survived because he could typewrite. They were congregating in England, ready for Normandy and they asked who could typewrite. That was considered a real wimpy thing for a man to do, it was a woman thing. But my mother was a secretary, so she taught he and I how to typewrite. So, he raised his hand and that saved his life. His peers in high school were all called to Normandy and half of them were killed. He went to Italy and Switzerland where he was a clerk and then went to Stanford, got an MBA, and became president of the largest insurance company in the world.
Gordon (07:18) The two of us gave a very humbling background, but wonderful parents.
Rick (07:25) At what point did you decide to become a dentist and what were the other things you were considering when you were in your teens and 20s?
Gordon (07:35) Very good question.
Gordon (07:37) My ecclesiastical leader happened to be a church of Jesus Christ, and I’ve never been a real lunatic religiously, but I’ve always been very involved with the religious scenes of seminary and done a lot of things with youth. My ecclesiastical leader was also a dentist and he was an unbelievable role model, a very altruistic man. He served people constantly, gave away probably most of what he earned, and I thought he was doing a real service. I loved the physiologic aspects of humanity. I grew up in the mountains and would find animals. I looked at medicine, dentistry, and engineering during my second year in college, knowing nothing about any one of the three.
Gordon (08:38) I was in a fraternity, Sigma Chi, and I was one of the only non-drinkers at that time.
Gordon (08:51) They said, why don’t you flip a coin? I was sober and they weren’t. So, we flipped a coin and it turned dentistry. I’m sure that didn’t make the decision, the big man made the decision. But that was pretty influential in my life, and I just put my wheels down and took off. I knew from junior high I want to be a dentist.
Rick (09:23) So, one of the ways that I learned about the Mormons was that I traveled for a year internationally after college and I met a lot of them on the road in places like India. That’s where I spent most of the time that I had.
Rick (09:42) So, I was wondering, where were you sent on your mission and what did you learn from that?
Gordon (09:47) Denver, Colorado. That was the puberty mission when you’re just a kid. At that time, that was from 18 and up. I did a home mission because it was right between the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I was in the Vietnam War and so they sent me to a home mission in Denver. But then subsequently, many years after, they asked me to administer a bunch of missionaries in Los Angeles, huge Mormon temple there. That was just fifteen years ago.
Gordon (10:35) It was an interval where I had to leave dentistry and only be involved with it one day a week for some years.
Rick (10:42) Interesting. I read that you spent some time in the Army Dental Corps. My father always talks about the army as one of the best experiences he ever had growing up. He was in the army during peacetime, but you were in the army during war time. So, I’m very interested to know how the army affected your growth and what that was like and what you learned.
Gordon (11:26) I was a Boy Scout growing up, and I always respected the military, the flag and the things that now people are trying to rip apart. I went through junior high school, high school, college, ROTC – I was a second lieutenant getting out of that. Then went on and got to Captain Rank as I was on active duty. I was not in Vietnam, I was in Washington getting all troops ready, thousands of them, to go to Vietnam. That was an experience, I still think about. I saw things and learned things that I had never seen since.
Gordon (12:16) I tend to work hard, and they saw that. Instead of being in the barracks with 20 other dentists and one assistant, they finally gave me an assistant. Then in a year they gave me another assistant.
Gordon (12:34) I was doing all the crown and bridge for that huge group of young people, thousands of them who came in from everywhere to be shipped off to Vietnam. I learned an enormous amount. Ten times more than dental school. Not even close. That was before I was a prosthodontist, I was general. But we did everything you could imagine from wounds, to the delivery of babies, you name it. So, what a learning experience and I really enjoyed that. I still do military. I just talked in Garmisch, German to all the military commanders on how to make dentistry more efficient and how to make it longer lasting, more predictable.
Rick (13:20) I’m curious to know what your secrets to a long life, not just long life, but long healthy life. What are your routines? What can we emulate from the way you lived your life so that we can be in our 80s and as vibrant and contributory as you are?
Gordon (13:42) I can think of so much. I actually teach classes on this very thing. The Dali Lama said in a book he wrote that there were three levels of vocation and one of them is a job. They have a job to feed their family, to educate their children, to support their drinking and smoking habits. That level is the lowest level. I was in the grocery store not long ago, and I could see the female clerk was depressed. I said, how are you doing? She said something I hear way too often from people, same old, same old. You’ve heard that stupid phrase again and again. That’s the job level. The second level up is the professional level.
Gordon (14:58) That’s the level where you were in a group and you identified as whatever, in our case usually dentists or businesspeople. You have certain goals and not limitations, but they are certain where you have to be. Then the top level is a passion. Someone who loves what they do and finds joy in helping others. It doesn’t matter if it’s a businessperson doing a legitimate and honest job with 3,000 companies, or a business, or dentistry or whether it’s law. There are passionate people and you have to think that’s what they are. I think I have a passion. I could have retired 25 years ago financially. That money is not an object and if money is an object, that’s one of the problems. I said my brother was a Stanford MBA and he was involved with heavy duty business. There’s professional business and there’s nonprofessional business. He found it frustrating and found that some of his peers were not the kind of honest and respectable people he would like to know. But in any profession or business, that’s the case. So, I would say a passion in what you do, not that you with all your energies to that, family has to come first and second has to come your professional life. Then down the line, it gets civic, it gets religious and it gets to the other aspects, about five major aspects of life. How do they stay healthy? I don’t know. The good Lord has been good to me that way.
Gordon (17:12) Seriously, my brother lived until 94, my dad until 93. My mother was a bigger woman than she should have been, and she died in her 80s.
Rick (17:25) What about diet and exercise? How did you live your life with regard to that? And if you say you never exercise, than maybe I don’t want to know.
Gordon (17:37) All of it is moderation. Literally, I see people out jogging and I think wow there’s good statistics on that. You only have so many miles on those joints, and if you’re going to use them up by 50, that’s your choice. I’m in my 80s and I have no joint problem whatsoever. I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was like any other kid, but I was one one year ahead of myself, so I was small. I didn’t develop physically fast and I was small. I was on the sophomore and the junior football team and I got slaughtered every time. I didn’t make the senior team and I was devastated. I got into golf. I got into rifle theme. I got into debate and I got nationally known in debate and you see where it’s taken me. So thankfully, I didn’t get on the senior football team. I go back to some of those graduation reunions now and I see most of the heavy-duty athletes are either dead, in wheelchairs or they walk using a walker. I thought I guess I had some destiny to live longer because that is physical exercise in excess. Physical exercise in moderation is walking fast when my staff goes with me. It’s moderation. Don’t get on the stupid moving sidewalks. Don’t get in elevators. I don’t do fake exercise. I really don’t. I do real world and I think that’s what the good Lord had. That’s why he made us physically fit because we had to do things and I don’t do the false stuff. I take a very active orientation in the real stuff. I was a Boy Scout master eight years hiking in the mountains. I ride horses. I do all kinds of physical things, but they’re all real. I don’t have a fake exercise.
Rick (19:59) You also are known for having one of the most accomplished spouses. So, I’m curious to know, how did you meet Dr. Rella Christensen? How did you know that she was the one for you? Because your careers have grown together and it’s just heartwarming to see it.
Gordon (20:31) Well, it’s kind of a weird story. One of the schools I attended dental school was the University Southern California. I was poverty stricken and had no money, so I was a janitor, a parking lot attendant, I sold Coca Cola’s and hotdogs at the Rose Bowl. I did all kinds of slave jobs and among them was hasher in the sororities.
Gordon (20:56) And that doesn’t mean anything to some of you listening. That’s the person who delivers the food to young women in the sorority houses. I liked it but, in the meantime, one of them was the sorority that Rella was in.
Gordon (21:19) I remember the night very well. That night when Rella was talking to me, I spilled food on her. And I thought, well I’ll ask her for a date and so I did. That was 1959, and we’ve been married for 61 years. So, we live pretty independent lives. We’re together on the weekend. We have a normal date night. We’re involved. We have our times when we get very animated in our discussions and we always have respected one another. She’s an expert in one area and I might be slightly expert in another area. But being a Mormon bishop, as I was for some years, I learned a lot about marriage, and I do have a PhD in psychology. So, I learned a lot about how to keep a marriage together.
Rick (22:36) Does that summarize all of the lessons together?
Gordon (22:41) That’s all parts of life. Just listen a lot.
Rick (22:46) Listen till it hurts. So true.
Rick (22:51) So on to an article that I saw that you wrote in 2003. The title of it is I’ve Had Enough. Do you mind discussing that?
Gordon (23:09) I’ve written well over 500 articles in journals all over the years.
Rick (23:14) This is the one that still comes up in the first page of Google.
Gordon (23:18) That one has had more read grants than any other article I’ve ever written. I mean, when I first wrote it, I had piles of letters that were six inches deep. I have had enough. There are people who are devoted to helping others and then there are those with a goal of money only.
Gordon (23:53) And the overtreatment that prompted that article was rampant at that time. Eight veneers on somebody that needed a bleach. Just crazy stuff on young people. I would see people come in. I live right here by Brigham Young University in Utah Valley University and we’re seeing 65,000 students in this small community.
Gordon (24:20) So, there are a lot of students from everywhere. California was one of the hotbeds of this overtreatment at that time. This has been quite a few years ago when veneers were very popular. They were new so everyone wanted to do them.
Gordon (24:42) I would see 8 or 10 veneers on somebody that needed bleach or a couple closures with resin. And I thought, this is sick. I would see many things that are out of my realm of total knowledge. I would see too many hysterectomies. I would see all kinds of things that were done that really didn’t need to be done and that really frustrated me. One of our mantras in the medical area is do no harm and I was seeing harm. I was seeing their teeth cut down at age 18 and they shouldn’t have been touched. And that prompted me to say, let’s think logically about what we’re doing. Let’s not over treat. It got killed by the recession. We lost 27% of indirect restorations in dentistry during the Great Recession of years ago and it is coming back. But then COVID came on and that wiped it again. We’ll get back to reality again. We’re back to who we are, which is trying to preserve teeth, not just make everybody look like toilet bowl white.
Rick (26:23) So, I would assume that you would think that it’s better now than it was in 2003. When you look toward the future, what do you see with regard to what you wrote in 2003?
Gordon (26:40) Well, there was a lot of affluence among the general public back in 2003. I think it was a time when most dentists were doing exceedingly well. Only a few were struggling. Therefore, there was a lot of emphasis on money. A lot of emphasis on the triple digits of income. That’s not where we are. It’s nice to have enough money. It’s nice to have a growth each year. But to aim at that is stupid. I don’t care what profession they’re in or business they’re in. Their aim that just money is not where we are here for that reason. So, I’m seeing right now we’re kind of at our roots again, which is where we treat three major diseases or conditions. Whatever you want to call it, we overtreat carries. We know about perio, but don’t treat it much and we can’t even spell occlusion. We’re kind of back to the roots again, because people know that’s why we exist. We don’t exist to make everybody lovely and gorgeous. And I’m seeing kind of a leveling of that extravagant and over overtreatment that we saw back in the early 2000s.
Rick (28:21) If you were a 35-year-old dentist, what would you be worrying about today?
Gordon (28:30) A lot of things. It’s been about 15 years ago, I paired with how Howard Farran and Rich Maddow and a few others and we got all our databases together and we had tens of thousands of dentists and we polled them. The question was, what’s bothering you?
Gordon (29:00) And third-party payment was the major thing at 99%. That was just number one and not even debatable. Then we had established 20 different things that were bothering the dentists. I would like to see more interaction with the various sides of any argument which we don’t see in government right now. I can’t read the newspapers and I have a hard time watching the news for that reason. We ought to be able to talk to one another. We ought to be able to sit down with third party people. I know that can be done and negotiate them. When I first came to Utah many years ago, that third party did not take for sealants. Third party did not pay for occlusal splints. I went to the head people in those major companies, and said if we do sealants at $50, you’re not going to do a crown at $1,200 later on.
Gordon (30:23) If we put an occlusal splint in the 35 percent of the population who has bruxism, they’re going to eat the squid and you will not have $32,0000 rehab at age 45. And we got both of those in. I think the discussions, I wish we could do that with government right now. I see things I cannot even believe are happening. We need more communication and with 45% of the population, either in corporate or a group, I think I have written articles positive about corporate, positive about group and there’s some negative to that. There’s some negative to private practice. All we need to do is recognize the different modes of practice. And again, that’s communication and we don’t have it. I’m right. You’re wrong. I’m right. You’re wrong. I just can’t tolerate that.
Rick (31:28) And not just in dentistry. It’s everywhere.
Rick (31:38) I happen to struggle with posture. I’m not a dentist but I’m almost 50 years old. I am very cognizant of and I have terrible neck issues. When I see your posture in your advanced age and the fact that you’ve been a dentist your whole life. I think that posture is on the minds of many dentists right now because it’s one of the things that can be a true gotcha in retirement. How did you wind up with such impressive posture? Did you work at it or is this just good luck?
Gordon (32:22) No, it’s a combination of the two. I’ve helped start two dental schools in one major CE center and one of the dental schools I helped start years ago in the 60s was in Russi, Kentucky. During that time, there was a lot of emphasis on posture when practicing, on hand movements, on high velocity evacuation. There were lots of things that came on during that time that were highly influential then. And even today, just as recently as yesterday, Rella showed me the current study she’s doing on all of the sucking machines that everybody’s buying. And guess what? Something that we in Quincy’s report proved 25 years ago is still valid. The high velocity evacuation used properly takes up to 90 percent of the garbage away. Some of these devices that they’re now selling heavily only redistributed everywhere and behind the shields. And so, we’ve done it with particulate matter and smoke. Now we’re going into actually organisms and particulate matter and that’s such an example of where we are. The bottom line is a lot of these studies that are going on now are going to really change the way we practice. No question in mind.
Rick (34:18) Can you share with the audience? I’m going to ask for only two, but I bet you have dozens. What are the two products that you think every single dentist should have that you don’t see many dentists either know about or they don’t have? But what are two that come to mind that you think?
Gordon (34:39) Thank you. That’s a really good question. I have a little course on that. It goes a couple of days. We did a study on 47 technologies. Number one was cone beam. You hear questions like that changed my life. I’ve seen things that I’ve never seen before. It’s changed every treatment plan. So, cone beam is right on the top. And what other things should they get? I’ll say obviously cone beams are going to run you $65,000 to $150,000. Some of the studies we do are really appalling. We did one a while ago on just panoramic and we found that 25% of American dentists don’t even have panoramic. And of those who have panoramic, 25% of those are still analog. The so-called, as a trite phrase, digital workflow. You talk about posture, when I was in your East Coast, the demonstration facility, I was very concerned about that. You’ve got some smaller operatories for hygiene. You’ve done some really creative things. And I see other groups that come in and tell the dentist what to do. The second one is digital workflow.
Rick (36:51) Excellent. What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self? If you can go back in time and coach your own self at age 20. What would you tell yourself?
Gordon (37:10) Again, I could give you a whole day lecture on that. It’s almost a scriptural thing, do onto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s number one. Have empathy, enthusiasm, positive thinking. The Alpha Omega fraternity asked me if I wanted me to give a talk on leadership. So, I pulled a hundred leaders by their biographies and autobiographies, and they were people like Dwight Eisenhower, Norman Vincent Peale. They were people in every aspect of life, business, religion, medicine, law, the whole game. And of all those leaders, the number one characteristic that they felt gave them their leadership potential and influence was positive thinking. That was number one. Everyone. We can do it. We could do it. Look at Churchill, never give up. You know, every one of them had the same orientation. I can do it. Just shut up and let’s do it. We’re done. Do it now. And then they went down the line and you got others that were most of them being organized. People ask me, how do you practice, do religious stuff, also do family things. And I say, well, there’s a priority. Put family in the planner first and then comes business and then so forth down the line. And then you just lived by that. Get organized and don’t look at the half full cup, look at the upper side.
Rick (39:29) You don’t see it enough. I totally agree.
Rick (39:34) What books have you recently gifted or not recently, but over your lifetime, what books do you find yourself giving as gifts?
Gordon (39:48) I’m psychologically oriented, as you know. And I think the human mind is not used nearly enough. As an example, I don’t do a lot of sedation. I can take a needle and stick it right through my hand and come out the other side and not feel it. But I have to jazz myself up. I can take a patient who can’t have general anesthetic or even sedation and spend a couple of half hour sessions. Now there’s the downside. I have to tell you a story. When I went in the military, I did not have the psychological background or education. And the old colonel was in charge who is in charge of the oral surgery clinic, which was huge during the war. Unbelievable because all those kids would come in mutilated and we have to fix him. And he said Christensen don’t give them that anesthetic and say, look, let me show you what to do. I could not believe what he showed. This is a guy that I still remember. He used hypnosis. He would take a couple sessions with a kid who was terrified. He would say, OK, I’m going to call you. They were going to do this. And I will tell you what your mind is going to do when you come in. The lower right side will be totally numb. I watched him do that and I thought this is witchcraft, and that got me variance in psychology. The human mind is so powerful and therefore there’s so many psychologic books. I have one grandson right now who is looking at medical. He’s looking at a lot of the homeopathic things, looking at medical school. He’s just ready to do one of those things. And I tell him the mind can do almost anything with a sympathetic nervous system. I can stop urination until I actually bloat. I can I can stop a headache with about 10 minutes of contemplation and telling myself it isn’t there. So, a lot of the psychology books. But then how to influence people. And you know that one. How to win friends and influence is a classic. If you look behind me, I don’t know if you see it.
Rick (43:06) I can see them. Yeah.
Rick (44:04) So here’s a here’s a broad question, not a dental one. What frustrates you in the world today?
Gordon (44:14) The lack of empathy among people. Trump’s done a lot of good things, but he’s done a lot of things that disgusts me. And that’s the lack of empathy. Name calling. The other challenge is to get off the politicians. But in any aspect of life, here’s an example. Your wife comes in. Your wife has the hideous new dress on. How do you like my new dress?
Gordon (:44:50) Now you can say is a piece of junk. I don’t like it. Or you could say it’s really a good length. There is always something good to find. I would like to see empathy thinking before speaking. That’s why I’ve stayed married so much. If she says that I don’t like, I just grin and that all resolves it.
Rick (45:44) Fantastic. Well, I thoroughly enjoyed this hour that we’ve been able to spend together. Your publication, CRA is one I look forward to the most. The reason being, it’s short, it’s sweet and it gets right to the point. And you speak in simple terms so that non dentists can also understand it. And so, I just want to tell you that I’m completely appreciative of what you publish. And I’m sure that others would agree. It’s my favorite dental publication. So, thank you for all of the work that you’re doing at CRA. Thanks. Please pass on to Dr. Rella Christensen, how much we appreciate all the work that she’s done and continues to do. And thank you once again for spending this morning hour with me, everyone. Dr. Christensen was up at six a.m. for all of us to enjoy this hour together. So, thank you again for that. And I really want to say thank you and thanks for all of your contributions.
Gordon (47:00) You guys have done an outstanding job and not to depreciate Schein or Patterson. You have come from being family owned and being directed by you and Chuck and your dad. I think it’s an outstanding tribute to you that you’re all working together and you’re doing some heavy-duty stuff. You’re influencing women in the profession. You’re doing some altruistic things that are very admirable. Thank you for what you’re doing.