Shoulders of Giants-Dr. Steve Carstensen

Steve Carstensen is a general dentist who in his late 50’s sold his successful general dental practice to follow his passion for Dental Sleep Medicine to exclusively treat patients suffering from Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Over the past decade, Steve has become a giant in the world of Dental Sleep Medicine not only as an owner of Premier Sleep Associates in Bellevue, Washington but also as Editor in Chief of Dental Sleep Practice Magazine and having served the AADSM and served as a teacher at The Pankey Institute and Spear Education. I hope you will find his insights and perspective on dentistry to be as beneficial as I did.

Q: What attracted you to dentistry, in the beginning? STEVE: ”I was sixteen years old living in Arkansas and my dad had finally achieved a level where we had dental insurance. So, all of the sudden I went to the dentist a lot. I realized that I could do some things, Medicine seemed O.K. but I liked all the tools and things at the dentist, and the lifestyle of the dentists didn’t have them having to go to the hospital late at night. So, I worked to get into Baylor Dental School.”

Q: Who were your early mentors? STEVE:Keith Thornton is my major mentor, I met him in my second week at Pankey in 1989. We immediately bonded because of his passion for dentistry and getting other dentists to see the message of quality and commitment to dentistry. As I grew as a teacher, I feel I have always had Keith sitting on my shoulder telling me what to do. When I became interested in dental sleep medicine, I came to find out he was one of the pioneers of that as well, so it was a natural fit. He has always been someone I could trust to steer me the right way. From a teaching and business standpoint, Gary Dewood and Mark Murphy are my two touchstones for how to communicate with patients and get my message across. I have watched both of those guys talk to large groups of dentists, and individual patients and I have seen how they allow the patient to discover what is in their best interest and how it matches with what the dentist has available. I have watched them help dentists to discover the pathway forward without ever telling them what they should do. I think it is an amazing way to lead. I see how the best path is seemingly clear to the leader, but they have the ability to allow the other people to discover it for themselves.”

Q: Who are your current mentors? STEVE: “I still consider Keith Thornton my biggest mentor but Amy Morgan from Pride Institute is someone I talk to all the time. Amy helps me through having my business goals and vision correct and setting my energies on the right things to do. I also talk to Lisa Moler with MedMark. I talk to her about business, but she teaches me about having fun along the way. She is an excellent businessperson, but she has a lot of fun.”

“Dentists have a chance to affect whole body health for lifetimes..”

Q: What changes have occurred in dentistry that you find interesting? STEVE: What I like the most is the movement of dentists to paying attention to the whole person. These teeth are connected to a whole lot more body parts. Noticing inflammatory processes and the advancement of diagnosis with saliva and blood tests. Dentists are becoming part of the healthcare team on a different level than just a mechanic for the diseases associated with dental health. Also, claiming our space as physicians somewhat disregard oral health, which allows us to stick up for oral health, the more that dentists belong at that table, the better off patients will be. On the sleep apnea side the whole concept of growing an airway. Dentists have a chance to intervene with children and take advantage of growth and development this means we can affect whole body health for lifetimes so they can live their entire lives without having compromised sleep-breathing problems.”

Q: What’s the hardest part of being a dentist? STEVE: “Limitations of our practice. What can happen is as you do the same thing over and over again you begin to have a limited view. After a while, it doesn’t take a lot of time to master an aspect of dentistry which draws on less and less intellectual stimulus to do a fine job of restoring teeth so it can get a little route. However, dentistry does allow the dentist who wants to take on more to learn more and more and do some other things. Also, the nature of our businesses for most of us has us wearing too many hats at the same time, which can be frustrating and limiting. Time off is difficult for most dentists. Sometimes it seems like we can make our own decisions we truly cannot because were constrained by the fact that we have a business to run.”

“I get goose bumps when they say thank you for helping me feel so much better.”


Q: What’s the best part of being a dentist? STEVE: “When people come back and say “I can’t believe I feel this much better because of what you did.” This happens in restorative dentistry and certainly in dental sleep medicine. It gives me goose bumps when they come back with appreciation for what you did.”

Q: If you had a magic wand what would like to see happen in dentistry? STEVE: “I would like to see every dentist ask every patient about their sleep and breathing quality. I would like dentistry to be at the forefront of screening patients for that. And I would like to see every child assessed to see if they are sleeping well and growing well along a normal pathway.”

Q: What is it about the future of dentistry that excites you most? STEVE: “The elimination of barriers between dentistry and medicine. We are so siloed. The more and more overlap that happens the more we will see a convergence and a disintegration of the barrier between medicine and dentistry, it will become another part of medicine.”

“If you are unhappy personally it will be really hard to be an excellent partner for your patients.”

Q:What advice would you offer dentists? STEVE: “Decide what you want. If you want to move, move. Make sure your happy where you live and where you work. Fix these first. If you are unhappy, personally it will be really hard to be an excellent partner for your patients. The second part is that when you are talking to patients that you are focused on what is going to be a win for both sides. You can’t do it and not get paid, and on the other side, you can’t make choices about your lifestyle that are going to put too much strain on your finances that you will need the money more than the patient needs the dentistry you have a problem. Richard Green from the Pankey Institute once went to Dr. Pankey looking for answers as to why he was not experiencing the level of success that he thought he deserved. After Dr. Pankey asked him a few questions about his finances he told Rich that his problem was the patients see dollar signs in your eyes. What I take from that story is that you cannot approach a patient with dollar signs in your eyes because they will feel it. On the other side, if you approach the patient and they see care, compassion and commitment in your eyes than the money will flow in and you will not have to worry about that.”

Q: What has been your secret to success? STEVE: “Focus, Commitment, I am positive person I don’t think anything can stop me, so I don’t live with fear. I am comfortable with my value choices, and I am doing what I want to do.”

“I don’t think anything can stop me.”

Q: Do you have any book recommendations? STEVE: “Everyone should read “Start with Why by Simon Sinek.” I also highly recommend “Peak: How Great Companies Get their MOJO from Maslow” by Chip Conley. Most recently I have enjoyed “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Chris McChesney.”

Q: What’s the best course you have ever taken after dental school? STEVE: “I really can’t say. The right course usually comes at the right time. But in general, I would have to say the TMJ course from Henry Gremillion.”

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