By Timothy Hyland
For more than 50 years, Dr. Chris Simonsen has served the families and children of Bountiful, Utah, as their family dentist.
But he’s also been so much more than that. For his clients, Dr. Simonsen, 76, has become a friend. To some, he’s become almost a member of the family. To all, he’s become a part of their lives.
That deep and unusual connection between dentist and family is in part due to Dr. Simonsen’s skill at dealing with the unique needs of children. Indeed, Dr. Simonsen, one of the first dentists in Utah to specialize in pediatric dentistry, has developed a host of strategies to make each of his patients—and their parents—as comfortable as possible while in his care.
But the real reason Dr. Simonsen is so beloved by his patients is because he genuinely cares about them—each and every one—and he shows that care in so many ways. If he learns that one of his patients plays basketball, that patient will likely see Dr. Simonsen in the stands for one of their games. If a child comes in with a traumatic injury, their parents are sure to receive a phone call that evening, with Dr. Simonsen checking to see how that patient is doing—and a message that he is very proud of the child. His patients stop him at Costco and in the street.
In a way, he’s become a local celebrity in his town.
“From the very beginning, I felt my relationship with my patients had to be foremost in my practice,” Dr. Simonsen says. “I want to have a real relationship with each of the kids and families who come to see me. That means I have to spend time with them. I have to take the time to understand the needs of the patient, and the expectations of the parents.”
“That’s Crazy to Me”
It’s a straightforward strategy that has served his patients well for more than a half-century. It’s also allowed him to build a wildly successful practice: Dr. Simonsen stopped accepting new patients 25 years ago, simply because he effectively treats more.
“I am guessing the majority of my patients probably drive 30 to 40 minutes to get to my office,” he says. “I have patients now whose parents and grandparents I took care of when they were younger—I’m on the third generation of kids. I have people who come to me from Idaho, and they still drive here. That’s crazy to me!
A native of Utah, Dr. Simonsen says he knew he wanted to be a dentist for as long as he could remember. He found the field fascinating—so much so that he would actually visit dentists around his hometown, just to see how they did their work.
He would later go on to attend Utah State University where, after dabbling in pre-med, he ultimately made the decision to major in both speech pathology and art. The focus on speech pathology, he explained, gave him a deeper understanding of how the human mouth worked. Meanwhile, his work in art—particularly ceramics—provided him the opportunity to improve his dexterity.
“It helped me use my hands better, particularly when I was working with clay on the spinning wheel,” he recalls. “But as I always say, I had an ulterior motive: all of the cute girls were in art.”
After graduation, Dr. Simonsen would go on to serve with the U.S. Army Dental Corps in Vietnam. Though much of his time was spent treating troops, he also had the opportunity to begin working with children; in this role, he was charged with taking care of the wives and children of senior officers. “I was very happy to have the opportunity to serve,” he says.
When his military service was complete, Dr. Simonsen at long last returned to his native Utah, where he set up his practice in Salt Lake City, before settling into his current home in Bountiful.
Dr. Simonsen built his practice methodically and strategically, and it took off quickly. To this day, he says, he runs his practice based on a set of hard-and-fast rules that he believes would serve any dentist well.
For example, he has a banker, an accountant, and a lawyer whom he trusts, and he keeps a close eye on every detail of his practice. He operates on a strictly fee-for-service model.
“Dentists need to get involved and understand that they are running a business,” he says. “You need to look at your practice as a business. You need to watch your overhead. You need to watch how your practice is running, and you need to be the overseer of everything that is happening.”
As he notes, each hour that he spends in the office, he is focused on dentistry, and dentistry only.
“When I am in my office, I want to focus on what I’m doing in my office,” he says. “I want to keep outside distractions away, and who I’m focusing on is that child sitting in my dental chair. That’s the most important person in the world to me at that moment.”
His wife and children have all been involved and invested in the practice over the years. “It is their practice as well,” he says. When he hires new staff, he always does so with the idea that he is hiring for the long term; he notes that he’s had just three receptionists in 50 years.
When he’s with a patient, his staff understands that he is not to be disturbed—the only exception being if he receives a call from his family. He designed and built chairs specifically for moms, who are invited to join their children for the entirety of their treatment; his office design is open, so that if a mom has multiple children being treated at one time, she can see each and every one of them.
His dedication and focus bond him to his kids and their families in profound ways.
“I’ve been out at Costco and Lowe’s and other places; I’ll hear my name called out—‘Dr. Simonsen! Dr. Simonsen!’—and a little kid will run over and grab hold of me. Last year we had an autistic boy in [our office]. He was 8-years-old, and he’d never said a word in his life. He’d just sort of mumble and groan. But there he was, there in my chair, and he looked over at me and said, ‘I…love…you.’ Now, his mother absolutely lost it. I mean, it made my day…it made my whole week.”
Love What You Do
Moments like that make Dr. Simonsen love his job today just as much as when he first opened shop a half-century ago. He says if he has any advice for younger dentists, it would be precisely that: to love what you do.
“I try to emphasize this: it’s important that you enjoy your practice,” he says. “You need to enjoy what you’re doing; be happy. Dentistry is tough—it really is—but you need to enjoy what you’re doing.”
Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years' experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and The Washington Times.
Also by Mr. Hyland:
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- Researchers Establish a Link Between Untreated Cavities, Gingival Bleeding, and Teenage "Screen Time"
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