When it comes to insurance, it’s easy to get hung up on the monthly cost—the money you have to give away to an insurance company in exchange for a payout you may never redeem.
But according to Dr. Jeff Williams, Chair of the Board at CDSPI and an Associate with ROI Corporation, it’s critical for dentists to reject that line of thinking, particularly when it comes to disability insurance.
“It’s common for dentists to ask: What if I never need it? In response, I’d say: You never know what’s going to happen in life,” he stresses. “There’s a time to be price-conscious—and there’s a time to do what you need to do to sleep better at night.”
Dr. Williams speaks from experience.
In 1996, he found himself in a worst-case scenario and was ultimately forced to give up his dental practice and find a new financial path forward. Fortunately, he’d had the foresight to purchase disability insurance, giving him the lifeline he needed to push through one of the most difficult periods of his life.
A busy beginning
Dr. Williams started his dental career out of a Northern Ontario hospital in the late 80s—flying out by bush plane to offer dental care to remote First Nations communities. He thoroughly enjoyed, and learned from this excellent experience, but having grown up in the Maritimes, it didn’t take long for him to return to his roots. In the early 90s, he purchased a dental practice in a small Nova Scotian town, and augmented his time with locum assignments back in Northern Ontario and a part-time teaching position at Dalhousie dental school in Halifax.
Those early days were challenging, to say the least. Not only did he have a busy work schedule, but he was the father of three small boys and struggling to maintain a home and mortgage, and pay back student and practice debt. Despite these financial obligations, however, he’d made the decision to invest in disability insurance right out of school.
While he realized his return on investment rather quickly, when he had to take time off work due to a broken arm in the early 90s, it wasn’t until 1996 that the true value of his disability insurance became clear.
Navigating the disability claim
Dr. Williams remembers the incident like it was yesterday—at least, parts of it. He was using a radial arm saw on a Tuesday morning in his home workshop before his clinic day started when, in a “moment of complacency”, his hand got in the path of the blade—resulting in the partial amputation of two fingers on his dominant hand.
“It was obviously devastating,” he recalls. Not just for his physical and mental health, he adds, but for the small town in which he practised. “People needed me to get better. I was the only dentist in this small community.”
Dr. Williams immediately made a claim for short-term disability, which helped him financially as he went through rehab, and then surgery, in a bid to enhance the healing process.
Despite his best efforts, however, nothing seemed to work.
“I tried going back and working with some patients. When that didn’t feel right, I even borrowed a manikin head from the dental school, in order to get comfortable again. But I never really did,” he says.
The entire experience shook his confidence and left Dr. Williams in a dire place.
“I’m a perfectionist by nature, as most dentists are. I graduated near the top of my class—I’m very driven and detail-oriented—so not getting back to that level was as much an emotional injury as a physical one,” he explains. “My hands were integral to my identity. ”
Eventually, Dr. Williams had to come to terms with the fact that his clinical dentistry career was over—a decision that was incredibly difficult, but made substantially easier thanks to his disability insurance.
“Having disability insurance allowed me to heal without that grey cloud hanging over my head—without the pressure to go back to work to pay my mortgage or feed my kids. The coverage I had took those worries away so I could focus on my mental health. And because I had own occupation coverage, I was able to continue collecting insurance even when I ultimately switched careers.”
Dr. Williams standing on the French River Bridge; one of several maintained by the Tatamagouche Area Trails Association, of which Jeff is a member.
Never one to sit still, once it was determined that Dr. Williams would not be able to return to practice, he realized he needed something else on his plate.
“Even with a full disability benefit, I wasn’t ready to pull up a lawn chair. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I’d been so focused on my dental career,” he admits.
After some internal reflection, he realized he’d always enjoyed business—so, at the age of 39, he went back to school to get his MBA.
“I did a full program, figuring I’d keep my options open. Hanging out with 25-year-old classmates, I was the old guy,” he laughs.
It was during his time back at school that he was approached by a broker from ROI Corporation, an organization that provides appraisal, brokerage, and consulting services to Canadian healthcare professionals.
“I was still a member of the Nova Scotia Dental Association (and the CDA at the time) and heard ROI was looking for a representative in Atlantic Canada,” Dr. Williams recalls. “So I applied and got the job.”
That was 22 years ago—and today Dr. Williams continues to enjoy his second career.
“Without the accident, would I have been on the CDSPI Board or gotten a consultant role? Probably not. Today, I can control my work schedule, I feel fulfilled and happy. And I don’t have the financial burden of a non-insured dentist.”
Given his unexpected career trajectory, Dr. Williams never hesitates to encourage other dentists to invest in disability insurance and take steps to ensure they have the right coverage.
Drawing on his real-world experience, he recommends that dentists pay for their disability insurance premiums in after-tax dollars from their take-home pay. That way, any benefits received are tax-free too. “If you pay through your practice, and you become disabled, your benefit payments may be taxed,” he explains. “I’d urge anybody with a long-term disability plan to speak with their financial advisor or accountant to make sure they’re paying their premiums properly.”
He also encourages dentists to spend more time thinking about what might happen in a worst-case scenario. “Accidents happen and insurance can spell the difference between recovery and devastation,” he stresses.