Dr. Gabe Holdwick has learned he would rather be from a place rather than just live in a place. The difference may seem subtle, but it makes for a more satisfying career and lifestyle.
Dr. Holdwick grew up in Harbor Beach, Michigan, a town of 1,700 people perched on the shores of Lake Huron. His family has lived in town for five generations, over 175 years.
He knew that dentistry would give him options to take his career anywhere — but he also hoped to return to Harbor Beach to enjoy the lifestyle and practice “geographic arbitrage.”
After attending dental school two hours away in Detroit, Dr. Holdwick did a GPR in South Carolina. While he enjoyed living in both areas, neither felt like home. He missed the quiet. He missed knowing where to go for things. There was too much traffic, too much anonymity.
And so he came home.
During his residency, Dr. Holdwick reached out to a Harbor Beach dentist approaching retirement. The two struck a deal and Dr. Holdwick bought the practice in August 2015, two months after finishing his residency.
The rewards of small-town practice
From day one, he was the boss and already knew about half his patients. They shared his small-town sensibilities and outlook. “Many of my patients are small business owners or farmers. They’re decisive, and they know where teeth fit in the bigger picture.” In practice, Dr. Holdwick finds it easier to match his care with his patients’ values, and they share expectations. There’s less pressure and fewer dissatisfied patients than he experienced in suburban practices. “I can fix what’s wrong, which is very rewarding. Patients will thank me after a tough extraction,” he says.
Financially, buying a practice in Harbor Beach has proved very lucrative. With only one other dentist in town, there’s plenty of work to go around. Dr. Holdwick brought extractions and some implants in house, saving appreciative patients a drive while adding to the practice’s bottom line.
And things cost less in a small town: housing, the practice, the practice’s overhead. In fact, he leveraged the economies of small-town living to pay off his loans faster. “Geographic arbitrage,” he calls it.
According to the ADA’s Health Policy Institute, rural dentists make more than urban dentists. In Dr. Holdwick’s experience, that’s definitely true. Plus, they often work fewer hours. Dr. Holdwick works four days a week, giving himself three-day weekends for trips, entertainment, and other passions. He’s active in organized dentistry, participating in the local 3-county rural dental society with about 50 other dentists. He’s built relationships with those specialists and consults with them over the phone to minimize his patients’ need to drive.
Doing good by improving the community
“Being a small-town dentist comes with some responsibility,” he says. “You get all the benefits — the schedule, the compensation, etc — but you need to be part of the community. People notice your absence.”
Dr. Holdwick enjoys his volunteer work, and it’s made him part of the community’s fabric. “Everyone can use volunteers, so find something that interests you: Rotary, a museum board, the hospital,” he says. “Take the opportunity to be a part of things. It keeps you accountable, and it’s very rewarding.”
Being active in his community has built goodwill and friendships while connecting him to patients.
“If you’re a good human and invest in the community, patients will notice,” he says.
And he has achieved the ultimate work-life balance: plenty of interesting dentistry to go around with ample time to travel and enjoy life.
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