My Journey Toward Excellence
by Dr. David Finley, AACD Accredited Fellow

I graduated from LSU dental school in 1985. Years after graduation, I struggled to find my identity in dentistry. I took “this course” and “that course,” trying to be everything to everybody—but not really being very good at anything in my own mind. 

My patients loved me, but I had an inner demon telling me otherwise. I was a good dentist—other dentists even told me so. But my inner demon continued planting that seed of doubt in my mind.

After 15 years of growing a fairly successful dental practice, but not having any real direction in my practice life, I was challenged by two people—Dennis and Becky, a husband and wife team who owned a dental lab in Utah I had been sending cases to for a few years. They told me to learn as much as I could about cosmetic dentistry. The best way to do that, they said, was to join AACD. 

I became an AACD member in 2000 and attended my first annual scientific session shortly after. I was blown away by what I saw, and by the great people I met. I was astounded at the camaraderie I witnessed among people at the meeting. It seemed like there was a reunion at every corner! This meeting was also the first time I learned about the seemingly impossible Accreditation.

Shortly after the AACD meeting, I received a flier from LSU Dental School. They were offering a cosmetic continuum, so I signed up with the intent to start the next month. Then, my wife found out she was pregnant with twins. She was placed on bed rest for the seven remaining months of her pregnancy. I couldn’t leave her, especially because we had three other school-aged children to care for, so I tried to cancel my course registration. LSU wouldn’t let me—they told me this could be one of the most important courses I’d ever take, so they said they’d hold a spot open for me after the twins were born. So I patiently waited for the twins to arrive, and for the course to show up on my calendar.

At LSU, two of the course’s educators—Dr. Jeff Morley, a California surfer dude type, and Dr. Jimmy Eubank, a self-professed dental geek—encouraged me to try the AACD Accreditation process. Dr. Eubank offered to mentor me on a case if I needed it. So I took the 3 required Accreditation workshops, and the written exam at the annual meeting in Orlando. Along the way, I met people who wanted to help, and people who didn’t think they were better than everybody else because they were gifted with an ability to create invisible dentistry.

I plunged right into the five required Accreditation case types and began to really learn how to critique my work. God must have truly been watching over me and my patients as I learned what to do and what not to do. Eighteen months later, I passed my final case and became an AACD Accredited Member. My focus on cosmetics was forcing me to be a more complete dentist, and my patients began to see a difference in me and in my work. They’re still seeing it now. Just the other day, a longtime patient told me that she was comforted by me humming to music as I worked on her teeth. That helped her realize I love what I do and made her trust me even more.

After achieving Accreditation, I realized that my inner self still needed the challenge of an Accreditation process. So I decided to start the Fellowship process. People I talked with said it was impossible to achieve—but I started the process anyway, hoping I could find the cases I needed.

But then other roadblocks appeared. One of my children fell under the spell of drug addiction at age 14. When this happened, I lost my focus on Fellowship—and rightfully so. We fought his problems as a family for a few years. I finally forced myself to throw 50 cases together just before slides were eliminated from Fellowship protocol. I wasn’t ready to submit cases, but I thought that if I didn’t try, I would lose all my slide cases when digital became the only acceptable format. I was overjoyed when Dr. Brian LeSage, then-Fellowship Chair, called me to say I’d passed enough cases to bank them for another submission. 

At every AACD meeting or course I attended, Dr. Brad Olson—current Fellowship Chair—encouraged me to finish the process. So I trudged on, and treated all my patients—regardless of the treatment type—just as if they were Accreditation patients. I was becoming an even more complete dentist again. I expanded my scope of treatment to include placing my own implants, soft tissue and hard tissue grafting, molar endo, endo retreats, wisdom teeth and just about everything else, except ortho. I was working in all of the disciplines in dentistry that I had tried years before, when I was trying to be everything to everybody but with no real direction. 

By focusing on the cosmetics of dentistry, my scope of treatment expanded with the same goal of excellence I tried to achieve with cosmetic dentistry. I felt more complete, my inner demon left, and my patients benefited from the process. And then, I received a phone call from Dr. Olson informing me that I was named the 61st Accredited Fellow of the AACD. 

I was totally speechless. Emotion washed over me like a tidal wave. I still find it hard to believe that I’m an Accredited Fellow, and it’s very humbling. When the AACD posted my Fellowship achievement on its Facebook page, I saw a comment from another Facebook user that said I was “just a regular guy with great hands and an eye for art.” That is truly the essence of what I found in myself during the Fellowship process. Hard work pays off, and it can even be fun.

Through the Fellowship process I’ve learned an almost immeasurable number of things, but some of the most important are:

1. The fact that I know my patients are getting the best care they could get anywhere;
2. I am a pretty darned good at what I do;
3. The Fellowship process is truly a journey of self- discovery (one of the most challenging but rewarding journeys you can take in your professional life).
4. The AACD offers something other dental organizations do not--a true feeling of belonging, which can dramatically affect our patients’ lives;
5. The process brings you closer to great dentists around the world that truly want you to be successful.

So here is my advice for any dentist seeking Accredited Member or Accredited Fellow status, if I may so humbly offer it: Start the Accreditation process for two reasons. First, it will make you a better dentist. Second, your patients will benefit. Continue on to the Fellowship process and be amazed at your personal growth.

Here’s how to get there:

1. Institute a photographic protocol for all new patients and all your dental work... A picture is truly worth a thousand words. 6. Hum while you work!
2. Be a CE junkie. Find one pearl in every course you take and use that pearl the first day back in the office. 7. Remember what is important in life and don’t neglect it.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice. Even professional baseball players still practice hitting a baseball off of a tee, just like a five year old, because they know that it improves their swing. 8. Stay focused and the light at the end of the tunnel will get closer and closer.
4. Keep swinging. You’ll never get there if you don’t try. 9. Share your success with your team both at the office and at home.
5. Dentistry is a never ending adventure in learning, so enjoy it! 10. Take the journey; you will meet a pretty cool person at the end.