Chuck Cohen: We are here today on another edition of our 32 Most Influential podcast. (I am) very flattered and honored to be here today with Dr. Michael Cohen, the founder of the Seattle Study Club and a close personal friend. We not only share the same last name; we share a lot of things in common and we truly love each other. It’s really a privilege for me to spend some time with you today, Michael.
Michael Cohen: I’m honored to be with you. And I’ve been looking forward to this.
Chuck Cohen: Excellent. Well, we’re glad you’re here to take time out of your busy day to do this. So, let’s start a little bit about your journey. Where did you start? How did you end up as one of the most influential people in dentistry?
Michael Cohen: I can promise you it wasn’t planned. And not only was it not planned, I actually planned something about 180 degrees from that. I graduated as a periodontist and went into practice. And I liked the idea that I could go to the perio meetings and not be recognized. I like the idea that I could go in and go into a meeting room. I’m sort of, not a loner, but I didn’t particularly like groups and doing group things. My wife and I, even today, enjoy going out with another couple, or having a couple or two over to our house rather than a big gathering. So I wasn’t looking at all to make a big mark in dentistry and I wasn’t looking for notoriety. That’s for sure. I’m not even quite sure how it happened. It was by undesign rather than design.
Michael Cohen: I, as a periodontist, recognized that in order to succeed, I had to secure referrals in the community and the best way to do that was to try to find something that would bring people together. And the idea was a study club. It wasn’t that I invented the study club—and this is back in 1977. But it wasn’t that I invented this study club. It was that I wanted to do it a little differently. I felt that if I could get individuals in the community to focus more and become more proficient at diagnosis and treatment planning, then that would lead to higher-quality dentistry. If perio was part of higher quality dentistry, then basically it would help me build my practice.
Michael Cohen: I had issues in the beginning. I was actually coercing people to come to the study club and they weren’t coming because they felt they needed it for themselves. And I think that’s a big determinant as to whether a study club will succeed long-term or not. People can’t be coming to a meeting because they think it’s the right thing to do or someone is pushing them. I think education is very different. I think that college is wasted on the young. If I could go back to college today, it would be a very different experience. And I’m sure you feel the same way.
Chuck Cohen: Absolutely.
Michael Cohen: So once we could get individuals to recognize that they needed it, whether I was there or not, it started to have a life of its own. That took a little while. It took about 10 years, from 1977 to 1987.
Michael Cohen: In 1987, I invited a patient in for our study club meeting. We broke up into teams, we interviewed the patient, and then we faced off one team against the other. (We asked,) “What would you do in this case?” And the electrons were flying. It was really exciting, so much so that dentists were in the parking lot forty-five minutes after the meeting was over, arguing on how the case should be treated. And so I felt like I was on to something, because every year before this, I struggled to get people back to the club. We’d have about 12 members and I’d be scrambling to replace six of them each year. After this evening, people really got excited about the opportunity for clinical interaction. And that’s really what it was all about. It was about being able not to stand in front of a lecture or sit in front of a lecturer and learn from that lecture. It was really about utilizing the greatest resource that our communities have, and that’s each other. Learning from each other.
Chuck Cohen: It’s amazing. I’ve never heard you tell that story before and I find it fascinating. So, back to what I just heard you say is: the key insight in the study club that you created was this idea that the interaction between the members is what provides the real take-home value. Not as much what someone says from the front of the podium. Is that correct?
Michael Cohen: Absolutely. No question about that. Once I saw how valuable that was, I took some courses—not in dentistry, but on the delivery of continuing education. The newest research today shows that small group learning where individuals are collaborating and learning from each other is far more effective than sitting in front of a lecture or a long one-day lecture.
Chuck Cohen: Amazing. So once you figured out that you had a formula that worked for your own study club, tell us about how you decided to replicate that on a larger scale. That must have been a pretty big decision.
Michael Cohen: It wasn’t my decision. As a matter of fact, I was very happy to be quietly successful in my practice, and that’s really how I saw it. But there were a couple of individuals in my study club who sat me down after one of our meetings and said, “You know something, Michael? We have something very special here, and you’ve got to be able to figure out a way to share it with others.” I was just really getting started in the late 80s in implant dentistry, and I noticed that for the first time in a very big way, the education was being pushed out, not only by the dental schools but by the manufacturers. And the manufacturers were pushing out information that really related to how good their implants were. And I recognize that if companies wanted to sell implants, they had to stop selling implants and they had to start selling quality, comprehensive dentistry. If implants were a part of that, then people would automatically want implants, right? So I was fortunate enough at the time to know some people at Dentsply and they were very excited about what I was talking about. They wanted me to put some programs together in the Study Club. They were not telling me that I had to promote any product or any implant or anything like that. Basically, it was just a matter of talking about study clubs. So my first lectures were lectures that were sponsored that way. I had a tough time in the beginning. I couldn’t even give the study club concept away, but I was like a fullback. I put my shoulders down and plowed forward. And in 1992, we started our first study clubs.
Michael Cohen: An interesting story. I don’t remember exactly when. I just remember that one of the highlights in terms of me starting study clubs was the L.A. riots. I was giving a program schedule to 12 surgeons in San Francisco, not in L.A. But then the weekend that I was giving it, the L.A. riots (were happening) on Thursday. I was giving my program on Friday and I was giving it at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco. I got there and they were boarding up the windows and the doors because they knew there would be rioting in San Francisco the following day. And so these 12 individuals showed up and they closed the hotel while I was giving my presentation and they wouldn’t let anybody in or out. Those individuals had to stay with me the entire day. By the time I finished my presentation, 11 of those 12 individuals started study clubs. So that was my first foray, really, into the world of the Seattle Study Club.
Chuck Cohen: Amazing. So let’s do this again. I think that’s great. The second insight you talked about was the idea that one of the key elements of the Seattle Study Club is the comprehensive nature of it, right? We don’t just talk about an individual product or an individual procedure, even. It’s this comprehensive treatment planning process. And then the last thing is, basically, if you lock everyone in a room long enough, you will win them over. It’s a technique for selling and it works.
Michael Cohen: Yes, there’s no question about it, although I’m not a big fan of riots.
Chuck Cohen: Well, that’s good. We’ll skip the riot part. So you’ve got to talk more about the 12 who went out and sort of preach the gospel on a larger scale.
Michael Cohen: The Seattle Study Club basically ended up being a university without walls.1 And my idea was that it was a place where dentists who are in the field and don’t have the luxury of going back to school can actually experience a curriculum on a yearly basis. It has to cover everything that a university would provide. And actually, it’s not just clinical dentistry. There are non-clinical aspects to it. We have ventured into the world of integrated medicine and business, and we actually have the business academy at the Seattle Study Club. So individuals that get involved in this really get a well-rounded education each year, which is only a sideline. Do they get all of the continuing education credits that they need? Basically, what they get is a way of life, because this integrates with everything that they do in life. They become great CEOs in their practices and they become great leaders in it, not only in their practices but in life (and) in general with the people that they interact with. So that’s really what it has become.
Chuck Cohen: Amazing. Talk a little bit about the size and scope today of Seattle Study Club. How many clubs are there? How many participants are there? How many programs (do you offer) a year? Give us an idea, because some of the listeners may not understand exactly how big the operation is today.
Michael Cohen: The first clubs, as I mentioned, started in 1992. Since then, we’ve started about 270 study clubs in the United States and in Canada. We have five clubs in Australia, we have seven clubs in China, we have a club in Taiwan, clubs in Japan and Germany, in the UK, (and) we have clubs in Italy and India. We now have clubs all over the world. We have approximately 5,700 dentists who are associated with the Seattle Study Club. And when you look at the fact that staff members are also involved in Seattle Study Club activities, Seattle Study Club touches over 35,000 individuals in dentistry.
Chuck Cohen: Wow. Well, let’s pivot a little bit and talk about influence in general. What does it feel like to be an influencer? And how are some of the ways you think that you in Seattle Study Club, in general, have been influencing dentistry in the last five, 10 years or so?
Michael Cohen: You know, there’s been no advertising for the Seattle Study Club. In a sense, no conventional advertising. So maybe if there was advertising, it could even be a lot bigger. But it was really about one individual who felt (that) the right things needed to be done. I didn’t sit down and use consultants to try to figure out how we would scale the Seattle Study Club. It was nothing like that at all. It was all a natural evolution, people talking to people. And that, to me, because I was so passionate about what I was doing, sufficed.
Michael Cohen: In the process of promoting interdisciplinary, comprehensive care, I got involved in publishing two textbooks with Quintessence, probably the most well-recognized publisher in dentistry in the world. And if you speak to the high-level clinicians who are speaking out there, they would love to have books published by Quintessence. Well, I didn’t set out to publish a book (from) Quintessence. Actually, Gerry Chiche, a very well-known dentist, came to me and said, “Michael, if you want a legacy, you’ve got to (write) a book and be in the process of doing the book.” The first volume took me five years to put together, and it’s all on treatment planning. In 2011 or 2012, it was the second largest-selling dental book in the United States. I don’t know about the world, but I do know a lot of copies sold elsewhere because it was translated into five different languages. I got to meet (different people) because I invited the best clinicians from around the world and all of those clinicians that I invited were great teachers. They couldn’t write, but they could teach. In essence, I ended up rewriting a number of the chapters, but the information that was in there is contemporary. Even today, many of the concepts on inclusion, many of the concepts on interdisciplinary treatment and putting it together with great clinicians like John Keusch and Frank Spear and Morreau from Johnny from Italy and Stefano Grassie from Milan, also Italy—and Galip Gorell from Turkey and individuals from all over the world, in a sense, gathered to help me with this volume. They all have an influence. They’re major influencers. And because that was the case, I started to become well-known around the world. I became more famous in Tokyo than I was in Seattle, where I am from. It just happened. And basically, I have continued to create ways for people to learn. We’ve developed unique curricula for our clubs every year. We have all sorts of resources that we’ve developed for educational purposes. And through all of this, it’s created a tremendous number of tentacles in the world of dentistry.
Michael Cohen: We have a Seattle Study Club Journal, which is going on now since 1994. I’ve never put myself on the cover and we’ve had clinicians on the cover for about 15 of those years. We now have a different cover. But the point of the matter is, notoriety is not important to me. I am not looking to make a mark other than I just want to help people learn. I want to make life easier for those people that I can reach.
Chuck Cohen: Excellent. It’s inspiring. I especially want to hear you talk about the passion that you have for postgraduate education to many dentists. Too many people just continue to just stop learning and don’t continue to learn. And that clearly is one of the things you’re most passionate about.
Michael Cohen: So many dentists that have written us letters over the years of how they were stuck in their practices and it was joining their local Seattle Study Club that turned their lives around. And the thing is, is that because this is so pervasive—the educational process and the fact that we explore so many different areas—people become better businesspeople and they become better at interpersonal relationships. The perfect example is COVID and what has happened this past year and the fact that all of our clubs couldn’t finish out their yearly programs of getting together. We immediately created something called the Virtual Classroom, We provided education for over 100 of our clubs over the last three months of the academic year. In addition, we decided that we wanted to do something called Living Life Together, which were programs on COVID, or on business, or on things that would take individuals’ minds off of all of the problems that were going on. We had thousands of followers on this Thursday night series that we did, including many spouses and family members, because the topics were of general value to everyone. The influence stretches far and wide, not just to the average dentist. It’s a family affair. The Seattle Study Club is absolutely a family affair.
Chuck Cohen: Who have been some of your biggest influencers? Who’s influenced you in your journey?
Michael Cohen: I think one of (my) biggest influencers was a guy by the name of Sol Pflueger. He is known as the father of periodontistry. He started the first perio program at Columbia University, came out to the University of Washington, and started the program there. I spent my years in the graduate program, not so much learning techniques because of all of the staff that were there to provide that information. But I learned a hell of a lot about wine and good food. And he and I went to the University of Washington football games for 13 years, and I actually became the executor of his estate. I learned so much about everything that surrounds dentistry, as well as dentistry from him, and I think he made me a more well-rounded person, a more well-rounded individual. So he’s a major influencer in my life.
Chuck Cohen: Wow. And where do you think dentistry is going? What do you think are the most important powerful forces that are shaping dentistry going forward? And then, if you could change something about dentistry, what would you change?
Michael Cohen: Moving forward, the world will continue to be dominated from a digital standpoint. Yet, I don’t think that the world will be strictly digital. I think that the world will end up being what is called digital-analog hybridization, and that is—we will not go forward without influence from the human factor. Although these Zoom meetings and the digital side of things will continue and people will learn in front of their computers, I think there is no substitute for mentoring and for face-to-face (interaction), so to speak. And that is talking about cases and discussing cases and getting involved in the interpersonal relationships that are so important in human development. I think that will always be a part of a part of dentistry. I think that the days of one-day full lectures are going to wane. I think that it’s clear from, again, what I mentioned before, lots of studies that show that small group learning is far more effective. I think that when you look at learning for the future, there will be a lot more space for learning. Then one day, lectures where by the end of the morning your neurons can’t retain the information, you can’t hear the information, can’t get embedded in the neural pathways anymore. Basically the second half of the day, you might as well be out getting your errands done so you can have a free weekend. I think that short bursts of information and things like high intensity learning that we do at the Seattle Study Club is the wave of the future. Small group learning. Learning from each other. It’s not that lectures will go away. We have to add to our databases, but you have to be able to integrate the information you get into something meaningful and that happens best through collaboration.
Chuck Cohen: Fascinating. Talk for a few minutes about one of the really great inventions I think you’ve brought to dentistry, and that’s this concept of symposium. (The) symposium is truly the best dental meeting of the year. It’s the one meeting I put on my calendar (that I should) never miss. And I do think that’s been one of the things you’ve been very influential about, really changing the way dental meetings are put together, run, (and) operated. Talk for a few minutes about how that came about. What is the long-term influence of that?
Michael Cohen: Well, one of the reasons that Seattle Study Club symposia are so successful is because they were never built to make money. And so there is that factor that doesn’t enter into it, although we don’t like to lose money and I think that it’s avoided all of the politics surrounding many of the meetings in dentistry.
Michael Cohen: If I think there’s a great speaker out there, I’m going to put a great speaker on because it’s really about education. And it’s not sitting in an audience and watching the speaker, with all of the technical stuff. We really concentrate on getting the best teachers on the podium. So that’s part of it. That’s why all of the great speakers want to be on our stage, because there’s tremendous prestige. They want to be in the audience of other great speakers. They don’t come to these meetings to fly in and fly out. They come to these meetings and they want to stay because there is a wealth of information to be had.
Michael Cohen: In addition to that, in the beginning it wasn’t just a showcase of speakers. It was a meeting where individuals could get together. It’s an extension of what I’ve been talking about these past 25 or 30 minutes. It’s about the human side, the relationships that are built, the friendships that are built. It’s really about the Seattle Study Club community. And anyone who has been (part of it) can’t wait to come back. It’s only partly because the lectures are so fabulous. It’s everything that surrounds the meeting.
Michael Cohen: It’s meeting latent needs. It’s coming up with ideas that people would never expect and then they are so grateful for. It’s our directors coming to the meetings and experiencing things as surprises and things they’ve never seen and the quality being so high that they then want to emulate that in how they run their clubs. That’s exactly what we want. We want (it to) trickle down so that we can lead by example and our directors bring that back to their locales. It’s also all of the things that we endeavor to provide. For instance, we’ve had meetings, our symposia. Three of them have just been on being a great CEO. In your practice, we have something called the Business Academy. It’s not practice management. These meetings were like mini MBA weekends, or for day meetings as we have them, where someone could become far more proficient. First of all, learning what they don’t know, which is pretty scary because most of us have a tough time with the basic profit-and-loss statement. But listening to individuals who are prominent in business who can impart ways (on how) we can more effectively run our businesses. There is a wide, very expansive (subject matter) in the type of education that is delivered.
Chuck Cohen: Fabulous. Well, Michael, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today. As I said before, I consider you a very dear friend and I never miss a symposium. I also would like to say that as a disclaimer, and I’m proud of this—Benco is a partner with Seattle Study Club, mostly because we believe in the vision that you’ve created. We believe in this idea of comprehensive treatment planning. We believe that every dentist who belongs to Seattle Study Club becomes a better dentist and we believe in this idea of lifelong learning. So, Michael, thank you for partnering and thank you for sharing your insights with us today.
Michael Cohen: Let me just say one thing besides “Thank you” and “I’ll see you sometime later.” I do want to say something about Benco and what (it) fits into. (The Seattle Study Club has partners) and I think they are not only capable of serving our members well from a standpoint of product, but also from a standpoint of service. Benco does such a great job in reaching out to make sure that their customers are satisfied and really happy with the relationship. And I think as shown by what Benco has done these past months during COVID, and that is: Benco has been a company that has said—and there aren’t many companies that have done this—”You know what, this really isn’t about us. Let’s put that aside and let’s see how we can help others. The rest will fall into place.” And I really appreciate that. I know many of us at Seattle Study Club appreciate that. We are so proud of Benco for what (you have) done during the past six months. But also, we treasure our relationship.
Chuck Cohen: Thank you very much. That means a lot. I appreciate the kind words. And back at you, we treasure our relationship with Seattle Study Club, so thank you and thank you for sharing your insights with us today. Thank you for being one of the 32 Most Influential People in Dentistry.