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Dr. Michael Cohen, founder and president, Seattle Study Club (SSC)

Published on: Mar 31, 2021
 By: The New Dentist
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Nearly 30 years ago, the Seattle Study Club (SSC) was founded on the power of collaboration. Instead of focusing on lecture-style education, Dr. Michael Cohen created a club where dentists meet face-to-face in small groups to interact with and learn from each other, not just listen to an expert standing at a podium. SSC is known for bringing dentists together and continues to do so even during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the COVID-19 health crisis forced dentists to close their offices, Dr. Cohen and his team went to work developing programs to help clinicians stay connected and informed. A weekly webinar series, virtual study club meetings and town halls give dentists the opportunity to share concerns and experiences as well as to ask the questions weighing on their minds.  

“We’re all in this together. We don’t have to deal with all the issues and challenges alone,” Dr. Cohen said. “That’s the whole idea of Seattle Study Club. We’re more powerful as a group. The greatest resource we have is each other.”

SSC offers this support to clinicians all over the country and the world. There are more than 270 chapters, with 30 international clubs in the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, India, China and Taiwan. Through SSC, members have the opportunity to interact in the small group settings dentists of all ages and experience levels typically prefer.

SSC’s Response to Coronavirus

Even during the pandemic, SSC continues to provide dentists with a platform that encourages interaction, it just looks a little different these days. First, the team has put together a weekly webinar series, “Living Life Together” that “extends past the world of dentistry into the world of family,” Dr. Cohen said.

Dentists have been inundated with clinical programs to choose from since the COVID-19 crisis hit, so Dr. Cohen decided to provide something a little different. The webinars air on Thursday evenings and are available to anyone—not just dentists. Leslie S.T. Fang, MD PhD, kicked off the series with two sessions which focused on coronavirus, followed by webinars on the financial implications if COVID-19, as well as pain management in patients diagnosed with the disease. Other topics covered through the series include making critical decisions in times of uncertainty, managing stress through exercise and improving leadership skills.

The webinars attendants’ have ranged from 1200 to 3600 dentists for each webinar. Dr. Cohen says he plans to continue the series indefinitely.  

While COVID-19 has forced SSC directors to cancel the last three in-person gatherings of the academic year, members can still meet through SSC’s virtual classroom, Dr. Cohen said. SSC started holding virtual classes via Zoom on April 14 and will do so for the next seven weeks. Members enter a virtual ballroom for the main lecture and then go into a classroom with their local study club to discuss questions posed during the lecture. Everyone then meets back in the virtual ballroom to hear the expert address these questions and as well as others.

Directors also can attend weekly SSC town halls for answers to their submitted questions. Town halls feature SSC leaders as well as expert guests.

How it All Began

Prior to Dr. Cohen starting SSC 27 years ago, the idea for small-group learning was born from another study club’s struggles. Dr. Cohen had led that program for 10 years, yet always found himself scrambling to attract new members. He decided to try something different. He put together a treatment planning session and split attendees into two smaller groups. Dentists from both groups interviewed and treatment planned a patient, then faced off against each other to determine the right approach.  

“There were dentists in the parking lot for 45 minutes after the session arguing about which treatment plan would work the best,” Dr. Cohen said. “I began to recognize these dentists were probably interacting with each other in this way for the first time since they were in school. I thought, OK, I’m on to something here. There’s something to be said for changing the lecture style of education to a style where individuals are meeting face to face and learning from each other. That is so much more powerful than sitting in on a lecture.”

What Makes SSC Different

While there are other small groups in the dental industry that cover specific topics, such as treatment planning, Dr. Cohen doesn’t know any that are nearly as inclusive as SSC.

“We like to look at Seattle Study Club as a university without walls,” Dr. Cohen said. “We explore all areas in the small group setting whereas others might have a small group setting for a specific topic. There’s more online learning out there than there is small group learning.”

SSC covers all areas of dentistry and is attractive to both experienced and new clinicians, Dr. Cohen said. It serves as a great resource for young dentists who are looking for the mentorship and guidance they can’t find through online learning options, while the interactive programs give established clinicians the opportunity to collaborate with other experienced dentists and learn from their knowledge base.   

A Changing Industry

One of the biggest changes Dr. Cohen has seen over his career is the movement away from university based education to CE that’s sponsored by industry or provided by private entities such as SSC, he said.

It’s clear the all-day ballroom lectures are dying, Dr. Cohen said. The future is in small-group based education—what SSC has offered since its inception.

“There is less interest in going to full-day lectures,” he said. “There are more and more opportunities with online education. As we move forward, I think online education will continue to dominate, though many Millennials are beginning to understand the benefit of mentorship and face-to-face educational offerings.”

The Core of SSC: Integrated Treatment Planning

As a periodontist, Dr. Cohen has been involved with comprehensive integrated treatment planning for almost 40 years and has published two textbooks on the topic. Local clubs run their own treatment planning sessions using this method. Dr. Cohen moderates for these clubs once a year, entering meeting rooms via livestream.

Clinicians can excel at integrated treatment planning by adding to their knowledge base, Dr. Cohen said, whether that means reading studies and journal articles or attending lectures. SSC members hone and test their skills during treatment planning sessions.

“One member will say I think we should do it this way, and another will say I don’t think so and this is why,” Dr. Cohen said. “The group then gets into a discussion and has a lot more information to come up with a viable and reasonable treatment plan. You also have to pin down an accurate diagnosis. Once you have that there are many ways to treat a case. The closer you come to uncovering an accurate diagnosis, the better the treatment goes, and the better the results.”

The Symposium

Every year, the Seattle Study Club Symposium brings members together for learning and networking, always with a different theme and new activities. This year’s meeting, held in early February, featured the World Treatment Planning Championships—something not found anywhere else in dentistry.

Eighteen study clubs presented treatment plans and competed for $10,000 in prizes, but the contest was really about the process of developing the treatment plan, Dr. Cohen said. Dentists had the opportunity to bond with their team members as they collaborated, improving their case presentation skills in the process.  

During next year’s symposium, The Quiet Storm: Convergence of Technology, Diagnosis, Treatment Planning & Restorative Success, clinicians will follow a case from start to finish each day. Next year’s symposium is scheduled for February 3-6, 2021 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Orlando and is open to all SSC members and any dentist interested in joining one of the 270 clubs around the world.

Becoming Part of SSC

Dentists who want to join a study club should call the national office at 425-576-8000 to locate the club closest to their home. If there isn’t one nearby, dentists have the option of becoming a director and starting their own, Dr. Cohen said.

Directors are responsible for attracting members and developing curriculum for study club meetings. They have access to program resources from the national office and attend yearly director sessions to improve their leadership skills.

“Directors have a built-in support system,” Dr. Cohen said. “If they have issues, they can get information from the national office and fellow directors. They’re also assigned a study club coordinator who handles the logistics of getting the meeting space and communicating with members about when and where meetings will be held.”

Before becoming a director, dentists go through an interview process to make sure they’re a good fit. Once onboard, new directors complete multiple orientation sessions over the phone. SSC leadership helps them every step of the way so they’re comfortable running their club from day one.

Exceptional Speakers Wanted

Dr. Cohen is always looking for energetic, speakers, both experienced and aspiring, who can help members become even better clinicians. Speakers cover a variety of clinical and business topics and provide presentations at the local and national level, depending on their experience. Some speakers may be great for an individual local meeting, for example, but not ready for the main stage at the annual symposium.

The SSC team evaluates CVs and sample lecture videos before booking speakers.  

“Our members are very well schooled and very discerning so they’re looking for high-level presentations,” Dr. Cohen said. “Those who are qualified to take the main stage at symposium are tried and true and the best in the profession.”

The Future of SSC

SSC keeps growing (2019 was the best year yet) with new programs being added to make the group even stronger. For SSC to continue to thrive for years to come, Dr. Cohen knew he needed to develop a transition plan. He announced that plan at the symposium in February.

“At our recent symposium I introduced two colleagues who have the youth, energy, enthusiasm and know-how to help us build an extraordinary future for SSC,” he said. “They share my vision and are most comfortable in the culture we have created over the last 28 years.”

Dr. Cohen named Dr. Wael Garine the Director of Seattle Study Club Operations. He will be involved with recruiting new members, as well as present member engagement within the network. Dr. Parag Kachalia will serve as Director of Educational Development and Industry Relations. His domain will be educational content, social media management, and working with Seattle Study Club industry partners.

Dr. Cohen very much plans to continue to stay involved for year to come and is as busy as ever as he helps members navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.

“My wife and I will continue to oversee the entire company,” Dr. Cohen said. “I love what I do too much to step down so this was the perfect solution.”

Interested in joining or starting a club? Call the national SSC office at 425-576-8000 or visit the website to find out more.

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