By David Harris
I think everyone reading this newsletter is aware of the shockingly high probability of a dentist being embezzled in his or her career. Published statistics put that probability at three in five dentists, but because some embezzlement goes unreported and some is never detected, the true probability is likely about 80%.
It is tempting to attribute this pandemic to the necessity to have employees, with those employees being generally less educated and having a less developed sense of ethics than the dentist. By this logic, while it is quite possible to be victimized by staff, it is unimaginable that another member of the dental fraternity would steal.
This reasoning is doubly flawed. First, the overwhelming majority of dental team members share the altruism and integrity that most dentists bring to their profession, and the embezzlement statistics are a result of the actions of a very small proportion of dental staff. And second, one dentist stealing from another in a group practice context is something that we encounter with some regularity. We usually have four or five active investigations of this type in progress. While this is a small proportion of our total investigations, we need to bear in mind that the number of multi-dentist practices where this “fratricide” can happen is relatively small also.
What I want to establish is that the causes of embezzlement are not as simple as modest economic circumstances and underdeveloped ethics. Most of our dentist-embezzlers are already reasonably well off, and it is clear to me that they understand the ethical transgressions they are making.
So why do they do it?
Sometimes the embezzlers feel that the dentist they are victimizing has somehow wronged them in the past, and they are (using a very twisted concept of fairness) attempting to right this historical wrong. In other situations, I believe they get some kind of biochemical thrill from successfully stealing (analogous, I guess, to the celebrity shoplifters we sometimes read about in the news who steal a $10 item from a store while earning millions of dollars). And the dental education and licensing processes are probably far better at weeding out the undexterous and unintelligent than the sociopaths.
If you are not in a group practice, at this point, you are probably questioning the relevance of this discussion to you. It’s actually pretty direct. Embezzlers who happen to be dentists are bestowed a huge advantage by their victims. Because their actions are “inconceivable” (and I’m now quoting many of the victims), the perpetrator receives far less skepticism from the victim than he or she should.
Regardless of your practice situation, an easy way to make yourself vulnerable is to decide that it is inconceivable that a certain person will steal from you. Unfortunately, we have seen far too many of these “inconceivables.” In addition to the classic cases of the trusted long-term employee, we have also seen embezzlement committed by siblings of the dentist, children, and even spouses.
I’m not suggesting an ongoing hunt for embezzlers the way Sen. McCarthy once hunted for communists; simply that deciding that anyone is “above suspicion” is exactly the enabler that they need, if they are so inclined. We just can’t completely rule out the possibility of someone being a thief. Whether you practice solo or in a group, some amount of skepticism is a healthy thing.