Big Ideas: “Why we need to reduce the cost of basic dental care” with Dr. Hitesh Tolani

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Hitesh Tolani. Dr. Hitesh Tolani is the Founder and CEO of virtudent, a practice that brings preventive dental care right to the patient while leveraging dentists through telemedicine technologies. […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Hitesh Tolani.

Dr. Hitesh Tolani is the Founder and CEO of virtudent, a practice that brings preventive dental care right to the patient while leveraging dentists through telemedicine technologies. virtudent focuses on lowering costs, reducing iatrogenic care, and providing patients the transparency necessary to make more knowledgable decisions regarding their healthcare. As the founder of virtudent, the first commercial teledentistry practice in the United States, Dr. Tolani has been named Benco Dental’s 40 under 40 U.S. dentists.

Dr. Tolani serves on the faculty at Tufts School of Dental Medicine and as a tutor and advisor at Harvard College in the fields of Entrepreneurship and Healthcare.

Dr. Tolani graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and magna cum laude from Wofford College. While at Wofford College, Dr. Tolani launched a viral social media campaign via AOL Instant Messenger (prior to the existence of Facebook) to support a private relief bill adjusting the status of Hitesh and Jaya Tolani in the 107th and 108th U.S. Congress. This campaign garnered support from 35,000 individuals from across the U.S. and successfully led to policy change setting national immigration precedent.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My parents immigrated to the U.S. when I was a one-year-old. My father, an entrepreneur on a business visa, ran a chain of clothing stores, but passed away when I was thirteen. His death resulted in my mom and me becoming illegal aliens because his visa was our legal link. When we learned this, my mom began the process of re-establishing a legal foothold, but learned that my father’s death left us without an umbrella under which we qualified to re-establish a legal status. Perusing a resolution to this led to a national immigration battle which resulted in a private relief bill in the U.S. Congress introduced by Strom Thurmond (his last bill before he died). Thirty-five thousand Americans wrote their Congressional Representatives for me and my mom and the case was also fought in the U.S. apelet court system. Towards the end of this saga, I was fortunate to meet a man who served as a judge in the apelet court system and who was favorable towards our case. During my conversation with him, I asked him, “Is there anything I can do to thank you?” He looked at me and said, “You want to be a dentist? Well, one day someone will come into your chair and will not be able to afford care. The day you treat that person for free, know that I and everyone who has campaigned for you has been thanked!”

These words have echoed in my ears ever since. I will never meet all 35,000 people who wrote for us or who worked behind the scenes to push through our bill. Therefore, treating just one patient pro-bono doesn’t feel like enough, especially because as a doctor, there is no dearth of patients in the US healthcare system who are in need of care.

So, how do you pay forward the kindness of 35,000 people who changed your life? You dedicate your career to changing the system. You take chances. You innovate. You wake up every morning and remind yourself… I have this opportunity today because I am the pure product of other people’s generosity! You give it your all every single day… and that’s how I ended up on my career path, through a pure desire to pay it forward!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Not too long after starting virtudent, someone very revered in the world of dentistry told me that I was as crazy as Willy Wonka. “Your idea to use telemedicine for dentistry is a ‘world of pure imagination!’ If you see even one patient, I’ll send you a bottle of Dom!” He then laughed at me in a room full of people, people who many would consider to be the titans of dentistry, who together with him laughed along.

I remember walking out of that room quite deflated, but thought to myself… why not me? Who else better than me? I can do this!

Today, we treat thousands of patients at virtudent and I have also gained a mentor who is “someone very revered in the world of dentistry,” who has made me a proud owner of a very expensive bottle of Dom that sits in my office reminding me… Good things come to those who hustle!!

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

As nations around the world become more interconnected, so does the health and wellbeing of the world’s population. We can no longer look at population health just locally or nationally. Instead, we must think of population health as a global partnership that is implemented on the local level. So, how will the best doctors in the world be empowered to help individuals well beyond their boarders?

At virtudent, we believe this occurs through a combination of 1) mid-level providers; 2) new medical devices, and; 3) telehealth technologies. We’ve decided to start out with dentistry, a highly tactile and in-person healthcare vertical that 40% of the US population can’t access and which costs more to treat than all cancer treatments combined. We believe that if this can be done in dentistry, it can be done in a number of other healthcare specialties. Through our model, we’ve reduced the cost of basic dental care by a 1/3 and we’ve brought the best dentists in the country and the highest quality of care to the most underserved and remote populations — improving the quality of life of thousands of patients.

How do you think this will change the world?

I believe the combination of a mid-level work forces, new medical devices and telehealth technologies will help us bring care to the most remote locations around the globe. I think this will allow people stay healthy wherever they live, equalizing healthcare disparities.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Any type of technology, idea, or innovation can/will have drawbacks both predictable and unpredictable. In healthcare, it’s the responsibility of the governing entities to regulate the drawbacks and set standards. We do this already in many ways, but require regulatory changes as we progress into the future of healthcare.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

As a doctor, I would come home days on end, feeling unfulfilled. At work, I was treating patients and knew that I was being valued based on volume of patients I saw, not the quality of care I provided them. One day, the practice I was working for told me that I needed to diagnose more of a certain procedure. I insisted that that procedure didn’t exist in the volumes they wanted me to identify and they told me… “Look harder!” That day I knew, I had to make a change.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

A paradigm shift among policy makers. Right now, powerful lobbyist influence healthcare regulations to make some access difficult. Policy makers need to put the patient first at all times and not the interest of big business.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The 80/20 rule. — As a doctor, I am a perfectionist when it comes to treating my patients, as it should always be. However, as a business leader, it is sometimes important to launch products/ideas before perfection.
  2. Bite your tongue! — No matter if you’re right or no matter how asinine the other person is to you, bite your tongue! You’ll never regret walking away.
  3. Your team comes first!! — It’s not your team’s job to adapt to you, it’s your job to adapt to them. You are as strong as the team you surround yourself with. They will be the reason you succeed, but they won’t be the reason you fail.
  4. Say Thank You! — — Being grateful is a state of living. It’s not a moment in time that’s dismissed after two words, it’s the way you carry yourself, it’s the way you interact with people, it’s the way you treat those who challenge you. Sincerely thanking people brings them joy and being grateful pays back in droves.
  5. It’s never gets easy! — — Building a business is hard work. No matter how big you get, how much money you’ve raise, there will always be a challenge to solve. If you ever get comfortable, you should be worried.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

“Not get too comfortable in what they do. Learn to adapt and learn to continuously be learning!”

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

Affordable high quality care for the Medicaid population.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

“Tell the truth and you will dance!”

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

  1. Take constructive criticism with grace and gratitude.
  2. Be grateful (say thank you!) and Be humble (never hesitate to say I am sorry)
  3. Learn to delegate
  4. Don’t make excuses, own it!
  5. Put others before yourself

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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