Michael Williamson Amplifies Care Through PDS’s Values

Michael Williamson discusses how Pacific Dental Services’ values-based compliance approach frees staff and clinicians from the limitations of a strict rules-based environment

As one of the largest dental support organizations (DSO) in the US, Pacific Dental Services (PDS), headquartered in Irvine, California, provides administrative and business support—management, administration, legal, IT, maintenance, real estate, compliance, and other services—to 813 individually owned dental practices across the US.

michael williamson
Michael Williamson, VP of Compliance & Ethics, Pacific Dental ServicesPhoto courtesy of Pacific Dental Services

“It frees clinicians to pursue their passion—practicing the art and science of dentistry—unhindered by the headaches and effort of running the business,” says Michael Williamson, vice president of compliance and ethics.

But while there are similar DSOs, PDS’s values-based approach is a key differentiator.

“Rather than a myopic focus on patient flow, PDS is intentionally focused on optimizing each individual clinician’s clinical culture so that a lifelong relationship is created with patients. We want doctors and patients to have relational rather than transactional experiences,” Williamson says. To accomplish this goal for the doctors PDS supports, he notes, the organization must emphasize fulfilling a mutually held purpose through the pursuit of commonly held values. Stephen E. Thorne IV, the company founder and CEO, exemplifies the values and culture that PDS and its supported practices aspire to bring to life.

Thorne combines a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit with a deeply held, values-based orientation, Williamson says. When he founded PDS in 1994, its culture was an organic and authentic outgrowth of his personality and experiences, including those gained from his father, a dentist who still practices today. Thorne took it upon himself and the teams he developed in those early days to cascade his values-oriented approach throughout the company, office to office and person to person, for more than twenty-five years. Ultimately, PDS’s pace of growth created challenges for Thorne to maintain that level of personal involvement.

Enter Williamson. Originally an attorney at a general practice firm in Massachusetts, he found that being adversarial simply for economic benefit didn’t sit well with him. In 1997, he formed his own firm. For ten years, he specialized in institutional representation in all areas of health law and healthcare regulatory compliance. From there, he served as assistant general counsel in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, focusing on patient care and associated regulatory issues. He later served as chief compliance officer at APS Healthcare and chief compliance officer for Smile Brands Inc., which offers services similar to those of PDS.

When Williamson joined PDS in 2014, it was a comfortable fit. “One thing that jumped out at me immediately was the company’s value statements, what we call our ‘We Believes.’ One states that ‘we’re not big on rules and regulations but demand that each of us take care of problems as they arise.’ My philosophy on compliance is values based, not rules based, so it was natural for me to gravitate to that culture,” he says.

“It frees clinicians to pursue their passion—practicing the art and science of dentistry—unhindered by the headaches and effort of running the business.”

Williamson’s responsibilities include managing all aspects of enterprise- and office-level compliance; drafting and refining policies and procedures; conducting related learning programs; investigating adverse situations and implementing corrective actions; and acting as a steward of the company’s culture and values.

“[The values] speak to self-governance,” Williamson says, “and encourages team members to govern themselves based on shared values—not a strict set of rules.” Williamson adds that “rules” define bare-minimum expectations, but PDS aspires to do more. “We want to inspire people to the highest ethical standards,” he continues. “People inspired by a deeply held, commonly applied set of values can guide themselves more efficiently, effectively, and genuinely than having to stop and digest a complex set of rules before deciding how to behave.”

The company’s eight We Believe statements were refined into a behavioral framework that includes principles to inspire—rather than control—behaviors. “Over an eighteen-month period, using input from team members at every level and followed by intensive workshops, we were able to identify two desired behaviors for each We Believe value statement,” Williamson says. “Now we have a genuinely cocreated code of conduct and ethics. It’s more organic and authentic than PDS issuing a list of ‘you musts.’ They provide everyone a clearly defined opportunity to self-govern. They’ve become the basis of everything we do.”

That sense of empowerment infuses all aspects of the business, including its client base—the doctors PDS supports.

“We strive to attract practitioners for whom our values and culture resonate. Our supported doctors know that PDS will not stifle their drive or their operations, but instead guide them as they make their own decisions,” Williamson explains. “When we get it right, we are facilitating the compliant and ethical practice of dentistry in a way that is most authentic to our supported owners and their businesses.”

PDS is in the early phases of implementing the Epic electronic medical record software application: approximately thirty supported practices were using it in the latter half of 2020. “Dental health tends to be segmented from the rest of the medical care system because of a perception that it doesn’t impact the rest of your body, but there is a systemic link. Epic will enable dentists to take a holistic view of a patient’s health status, connecting dots between the mouth and the body that might otherwise stay unconnected,” Williamson says.

And as PDS continues to innovate, evolve, and grow, its values-based approach will carry through.

“I’m really passionate about using the power of values to elevate behaviors,” he says. “We are about scaling not just businesses, but values. People who are inspired by purpose and guided by common values have enormous power to contribute to an organization’s long-term significance.”

HealthFirst is pleased to partner with Pacific Dental Services and set high standards for compliance management while also supporting PDS’s growth. By integrating patient safety and infection control solutions with the OnTraq application, HealthFirst equips PDS with a compliance platform for efficiency, visibility, and scalability across the organization.