Follow the leader

Dr Rick Olive draws from his military and political background in his new position as ADA president.
Dr Rick Olive draws from his military and political background in his new position as ADA president.

Marching the ADA bravely into a new era is Dr Rick Olive, whose career has spanned private practice, academia and regulatory roles, and who holds the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve. Chris Sheedy chats with ADA’s new federal president

There were several formative experiences in the young life of Rick Olive that helped turn him into the man he is today. These included his father’s stories from when he flew as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. There was also the fact that Rick had the job of milking the cows every morning and evening at his family’s home and hobby farm outside Brisbane, imbuing the youngster with a strong work ethic. And then there was a sarcastic comment from his English teacher in high school.

“I was reasonably academic and I also did quite well at school in woodwork, which perhaps wasn’t surprising as I grew up on a farm,” Dr Olive recalls. “So I had good manual dexterity and this was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when dentistry was looking to expand. I remember one day my English teacher was handing back essays. When he came to my desk he hovered over me before saying, ‘Your handwriting is so atrocious you should become a doctor.’ But actually the manual dexterity side of things drove me more towards dentistry!”

Prior to his teacher’s derogatory feedback, Dr Olive had, in fact, already considered a career as a medical doctor. But yet another developmental experience, this time his regular suffering of migraines and the resulting knowledge that he had to manage his stress levels and sleep patterns, made him lean towards dentistry. He assumed it would be at least mildly less stressful, as a course and a career, than medicine. “But if you have read my CV,” says Dr Olive, laughing, “you’ve probably realised I haven’t been very good at keeping stress out of my life!”

Indeed, Dr Olive’s CV is liberally peppered with committee memberships, board seats, council placements, a presidency at the Australian Society of Orthodontists, chairmanships, university roles and military appointments with the Royal Australian Army Dental Corps, all on top of the usual demands of full-time work, parenthood, academic study and research.

His history with the Australian Dental Association (ADA) reaches back to 1981 when he was elected to ADA Queensland branch council, before serving as branch president in 1985. Dr Olive has been associated with the ADA ever since.

“I guess I was from a political family,” he says, when asked what attracted him to roles that involved regulation and policy development. “My father ran for Federal politics. My mother’s grandfather had been a member of Parliament. Various people in my family had an interest in politics and I was involved in politics at university. You see things going on that could be done differently, you offer some advice, then you are drawn in.

“That’s how it was with the ADA. I was asked at one point to write a report for the ADA around the topic of the undergraduate curriculum at the University of Queensland Dental School. So I wrote the report. Several councillors told me it was a good report and that I should become part of the council. That was in 1981.”

When he first graduated as a dentist in 1975, Dr Olive joined a practice that had only just opened its doors a few weeks earlier and that was very much on the wrong side of the tracks.

“It was in a suburb called Woodridge which, at the time, was a fairly low socio-economic area of Queensland, not very far outside Brisbane,” he says. “It was in an area that was fairly neglected by dental practices. The practice I joined had been set up by a relatively young dentist for whom I had a high regard. It just seemed like the biggest challenge at the time.

“It was a brand new practice that became reasonably busy within two to three months. And the people—the patients—were fabulous. Their values were fantastic. They were committed to their health, including their dental health. It was a very interesting place to work. I worked there two years full-time and then, when I began postgraduate study, two years part-time. There was a lolly shop next door and the business grew so quickly that we took over their premises. I like to think our dentistry put the lolly shop out of business.”

Dr Olive’s further study led to him becoming an orthodontist and conducting research in the same field. In order to help pay his way through a period of academic research, he joined the Army Reserve and, 37 years later, he’s still there, holding the rank of colonel.

The military experience, which he says is yet another family trait—not only did his father fly fighter planes but his great grandfather was a Royal Marine who had been sent to Fiji to help quell an uprising—offered Dr Olive strong leadership skills that he says are valuable for every professional.

“The military selects people as officers who they think have leadership potential,” he says. “But even people who do not show those qualities of leadership required in an army officer can have leadership training and do better as a result. They can improve in a range of areas. I have long been an advocate for professional leadership education and training.”

After working in private practice and returning to complete a postgraduate degree, Dr Olive was lured back into the University of Queensland in various roles, including as a tutor, researcher, lecturer, examiner and faculty board member. When his dentist wife, Helen, chose to stop working to care for their young children (the couple now has four adult children and two grandchildren), Dr Olive returned to private practice, this time with Dr Don O’Donoghue at Brisbane Orthodontics. O’Donoghue retired in 2000 and Dr Olive is now a senior partner of the practice.

Of course, Dr Olive now has to take regular time away from that business for the demands of his new role with the ADA, which he sees as an important and positive one. There are several areas of challenge in dentistry today, and Dr Olive says he intends to utilise and improve upon the ADA’s track record of advocacy for the industry to do something about these issues.

“One of the major challenges includes improving the public’s attitudes to oral health care,” he says. “That is the secret to greater advances in oral health in Australia. For the number of people who want to go to the dentist, we have more than enough dentists and they’re all very good at what they do. But for many, dentistry is regarded as a discretionary spend. That is the attitude that needs to change. Too many Australians take their oral health for granted.

“I think this is partly due to the fact that we have been quite successful in advocating for water fluoridation. That has offered Australians the foundation for very good oral health. But there is a downside in that we sometimes take for granted that our teeth are going to be healthy. Many Australians do not appreciate how fortunate they are in regards to their teeth and they also don’t appreciate the standards of dentistry that have been established in this country. That is a challenge.”

As there was when he first went into private practice, there is still an association between lower socio-economic groups and poor oral health, Dr Olive says. So a further challenge is taking steps to ensure that cohort is no longer disadvantaged.

“I have great confidence in Australia,” he says. “People in this country are engaged, so it is not as difficult as it could be to get a message across. Our governments are engaged and they have surprising capacity and some extraordinary people at all levels of government across the spectrum of politics. That is one of our great assets; we have a fabulous system. What the ADA has to do now is to utilise that system to get dentistry front of mind.

“The things that will be most important for me during my time at the ADA are advocacy for dentists and communication with our members, so they know what is going on. I want them to be part of the process.”

With such a busy schedule, as he has had throughout his career, we can’t help but wonder how Dr Olive winds down during his rare moments of relaxation time. The answer, he says without pause, is fishing.

“When it comes to fishing I have fairly broad tastes,” he says. “I go barramundi fishing up in the Gulf. I go deep-sea fishing. I’m quite happy to take the tinny down to the creek and go crabbing. Even just standing on the beach, fishing on Fraser Island, is a good way to spend a week. I don’t feel that I’ve had a good year unless I’ve done that.”

Previous articleHow to be the best
Next articleStrong exteriors


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here