WSDA President Dr. Doug Walsh
Newly installed WSDA President Doug Walsh comes to the position with so many accolades and accomplishments to his name that it could seem like the denouement of his career. But the tale is hardly over. To date, he’s won the prestigious ADA Golden Apple (for the Congressional Summer Internship program in Washington, D.C.), helped guide the organization in the purchase of NORDIC and the new building, grown a successful practice, fostered a love for real estate, wine, art and history into profitable ventures that fuel his intellect and curiosity. But for this prescient leader, the journey’s just begun.
Goals for the future
Always looking forward, Walsh has many goals for the organization and its members, starting right here at home. First up? Strengthening the national appeal of our own 11th district. Walsh explains, “The west coast has its own synergy, and it would be great to play that up nationally. First, we could coordinate more closely with the eleventh district states, help to make us all financially strong by helping develop even more successful for-profit member services, share our expertise, adopt their great ideas, make it a regional entity so it can make decisions with few financial limitations.” Further, Walsh can imagine developing a think-tank for new ideas — not to compete with the ADA, but simply to make sure that our ideas resonate within our borders and out to all thirteen of the western states. Additionally, he cites our home-grown resources, like President-elect Rod Wentworth, who Walsh would tap to develop an ethics institute for the dental professionals, or design a two- or three-year year study, saying “We could get in, talk to the most people in a short amount of time, create far-reaching ideas from the information and then disseminate it. We need to draw the best and brightest, pull a program from it, learn, and then do something else.”
Innovative thinking might have earned the west a reputation for being a little too progressive with our colleagues in the east, but Walsh sees our responsibility to reeducate as vital to our success nationally, saying “I think it’s true that we have clear, well thought out and bold ideas. We’d like people to dare to think differently — to explore other ways and ideas of doing things.”
A new audience
But Walsh isn’t content to focus on states and districts, because he understands the key is in direct correlation to the success of individuals – namely, new graduates. “Look,” he says emphatically, “You don’t have to be 50 years old to come on board at the association. I want to encourage the students and young dentists to become involved in the WSDA early— they are truly the heartbeat of the dental community. I want to reach out to them to make them less anxious, and feel comforted and included. We need to focus on inclusion — and by that I mean be a real force in their lives early, often and continuously.” Walsh continues, saying, “We want to be relevant to their lives and careers, and show them the great heart that dentistry has. With debt levels for new dentists at historical highs, entry into the profession has been more difficult than in the past. The good news is that industry reports show that while organized dentistry may experience some changes, dentists should have relatively stable and secure careers.” Walsh has always said of dentistry that when it stopped being fun, he’d quit. And he can honestly say he’s still having fun doing it — “I think it’s almost a luxury to have your friends become your patients and your patients become your friends. You’re your own boss and you’re helping people.”
While still in dental school at the UW (he graduated in 1978), Walsh began giving back, “I volunteered and served on the board of the Georgetown Dental Clinic, which was operating out of a small portable in the back of a school, and it was pretty dilapidated. I worked with them to get a building — the historic Georgetown City Hall, donated to us by the City of Seattle, and we then secured a grant from then-president Ronald Reagan for $486,000 to rehab the building.” Walsh calls the experience “absolutely thrilling,” and cites it as a career highlight to this day. “I worked with such great people! We were delivering great care to the truly needy — there was minimal paperwork, and payment was voluntary and on a sliding scale.” Walsh bought a small West Seattle family practice in 1982 and now has five employees. “There’s a real bootstrapping sense to my community,” he says, “a lot of hardworking people. It’s a wonderful career, but the best thing is that you get to see the influence you can have on other people — not just on their oral health, but on their overall physical health, as well.” Walsh particularly enjoys working with kids — encouraging and watching them become young adults — “I encourage them to dream of becoming dentists, lawyers or anything they want... and I often wonder if I’m the first person telling them that. We have some kids who have turned out to be famous chefs, and those who’ve gone on to medical school and law school.”
Clearly, Walsh relishes the chance to give back to the community and to young dentists just as so many dentists fostered him when he first entered the field. Ask Walsh about any of his interests — art and architecture, politics or wine, and invariably a dental mentor played a role in its development. His love of wine, for instance, evolved from a conversation about investments with a dentist he knew. “I was pretty young. I remember we got together talked about dentistry and investments and some other topics, including his wine collection. He told me to buy certain wines and store them properly, and in 10 years think about drinking them. He reasoned that by that time I’d be interested in wine, and he was quite right. So I got some of the very early winemakers in the state — I’m not quite sure why I followed his advice, but I did. Sure enough, they are some of the state’s best — the early Woodward Canyons and Leonetti and some others.”
It’s the freedom to pursue other interests that drew Walsh to dentistry. His mother, an educator, and his father, an Irish immigrant who later became the Personnel Director for Veteran’s Hospital in Seattle, encouraged Walsh and his brother to find careers where they could be their own boss. Dentistry proved to be a good fit — Walsh found a comfortable career and the time to nurture his other loves, like the restoration of historical buildings, an ongoing passion of this lively, engaging man. Walsh explains his joy of restoration, “I love working with others who have done similar projects, and I feel that it’s part of preserving the rich history and heritage of the city. Because the big fire in 1898 left us bereft of many of the old historical buildings, we truly have a responsibility to return as many as we can to their original state.” He is currently restoring one of Frederick Anhalt’s iconic Tudor apartment masterpieces, and feels honored to have met the revered architect when he was in his 70s. Today, along with restoration, Walsh and wife Kathy Blain, a real estate broker, explore their passions for reading, travel, culture and art together. Married almost 11 years, Walsh lights up when he speaks of his exuberant spouse, saying, “She’s a delight, so much fun. She’s very authentic and joyful. She’s a fabulous woman.” He speaks with an enthusiasm that is rare these days — and like Kathy, there’s an authenticity to it.
An early entrepreneur
Walsh’s mother has said that he was an “entrepreneur from the time he was eight years old,” because even back then, he would broker deals with the other kids to have fun and make money. He bought his first house while in college, and also began developing cell phone tower sites. He says his insight for identifying a deal starts with reading the newspaper — “I read the front page of the paper and I ask myself ‘what opportunity is being revealed here?’ Somebody else might just see a story of interest, but I look for an opportunity. Especially when no one else has done it because it is brand new, there’s no reason why you can’t be the expert just as easily as someone else.” Later, while still in dental school, Walsh began buying up the airspace rights to parcels of land in downtown Seattle — rights he was later able to sell to developers — they got to build taller structures, the city got additional tax revenue. There were other problems like height caps and trades that had to be made, but it was easy for the city to work around. It’s how developer Martin Selig was able to erect what is still the tallest building in downtown Seattle — he bought and stripped his airspace rights from above his buildings and piled them on his downtown parcel.
An interest in politics
Walsh began his political career at eight, about the same time that he was cutting deals with his elementary school classmates, tagging along with his folks as they door-belled for local politicians in their Seattle neighborhood. His uncle was campaign manager for Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana, and on Walsh’s first visit to D.C. he wound up observing from Mansfield’s box in the Senate. He was instantly hooked. Today, his political reach includes serving on the legislative affairs committee, attending Dental Action Day to meet with legislators, and hosting political fund-raising events at his home in West Seattle. It was his love of politics that led him to establish the Summer Internship in Washington D.C., a program Walsh credits with creating a unique experience for the students and bonding senators and congressmen to the WSDA — so much so that they will often call to find out when a student will be assigned to their office. Dr. Walsh also served as a Board Member for ADPAC.
Walsh understands the symbiosis between politicians and their constituents, and works diligently with dentists and students to cultivate connections in Olympia — especially, with the state budget hemorrhaging. “We’re now $5 billion in the red,” says Walsh, “Adult dental Medicaid is tragically gone, funding for so many things near and dear to us is threatened or vanishing, and it’s really a time for dentists to stand up, be very thankful for what they have and give back — and take that message to the legislators in Olympia at Dental Action Day on January 28th, so they know what’s really happening in the state.” Walsh knows the frustration many dentists feel as they accept Medicaid patients and have to deal with the bureaucracy of the ProviderOne system, and ultimately receive compensation less than their overhead. “I’m very proud of the profession and the sense of generosity that is so prevalent. I greatly admire Dr. Danny Warner, our WSDA Vice President, who advocates for helping existing patients who have fallen on hard times with free care during their time of need. I also believe taking on some free patients binds you to your community.”
Walsh credits our own Washington Oral Health Foundation with doing a great job with the Adopt-A-School Program and working with the Boys and Girls Club in finding a dental home for needy patients. Eventually Walsh would like to see a mechanism in place to help track the charitable care given by dentists in the state, saying “What I’d like to find out how many encounters a dentist has a year. We’re reluctant to note exactly what we do, maybe it’s a shyness, maybe it’s a bookkeeping thing, but I think if we worked to establish a meter to gauge what our members give in a year, that would be useful information. We could then take that to legislators to show just how wide this chasm to care has become, because they’re likely not even taking the charitable care we do into account. We could set up a format that would be a simple way to track that information.”
Walsh’s vitality, enthusiasm and energy will go far this year, given the enormous challenges we face in the state. One thing is for sure — he’ll approach it with the same forward-thinking that has carried him through his life.