When Charles Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I’m certain he was talking about my dental school experience in the ’90s.
The best parts included being immersed in the study of dentistry, the pride that accompanied completed clinical requirements, and developing lifelong relationships with classmates, five of whom are part of a daily text thread that keeps us amused 25 years later.
The worst parts? Occlusion class, setting denture teeth, and realizing how much loan money I owed after graduation. Yet over the span of my career, commiserating with dentists from various alma maters has revealed that most dental school education lacks offerings in areas that would have served us well. Perhaps that is truly the worst part.
How to Run a Business
My plan was always to own a private practice. I was in the thick of it when I realized what I had was not a “private practice” but a “small business.” Unlike public health dentistry or the dental service organization (DSO) model, the bulk of business leadership and decision-making falls on the practice owner.
Given that most dental students will not end up in public health or DSOs, why don’t dental schools offer comprehensive business training that spans four years? New graduates have a hard enough time completing a simple occlusal filling in a timely manner. They don’t need the added stress of improperly coded procedures and deciphering employment law while in the midst of conflict resolution between the front-office and back-office staff.
While employment laws vary from state to state, business principles (especially as they relate to running a dental practice) are relatively standard. For example, it would have been nice to learn that dental insurance won’t pay for a permanent restoration if you’ve previously submitted a claim for a flipper.
Surely, we were exposed to conflict resolution and behavior management. But the abundance of dental practice consultants indicates there is a knowledge gap when it comes to the nuances of managing people and running a dental practice. A built-in, ongoing business curriculum would have allowed us to dive deeper, equipping us from the get-go.
How to Handle Stress
Stress and dentistry go hand in hand. For the doctor, stress results from difficult patients, procedures with unforeseen circumstances, or financial requirements to keep the office open, just to name a few. For the patient, well, that goes without saying!
Given that our profession is infamous for having a high suicide rate, it would befit dental programs to offer ongoing mental health and wellness education with exposure to a variety of stress management modalities. After all, what works for one person may not work for another. Including such techniques in our armamentarium might even contribute to a better patient experience.
Reverend Maureen Killoran famously said “Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response to what happens. And response is something we can choose.” When I first read that, I thought it was a bunch of malarkey, suggesting I had control over my stress levels. Clearly, Ms. Killoran was not a dentist and didn’t get it.
But the more I pondered the quote, the more I saw she was right. While life in dentistry seemed to attract stressful situations, how I responded either amplified or reduced my stress. If equipped, we can mindfully respond and create a life we truly enjoy.
How to Care for Our Physical Body
You can typically spot a dentist from a mile away. They’re the hunchback mulling around the nearest caffeine dispensary, holding a double espresso in one hand and sporting a wrist brace on the other. We’re an intelligent bunch. We know what it takes to be healthy: diet and exercise. Yet here we are with bad posture, a raging coffee addiction, and a Velcroed reminder that we are overdoing it.
Newer dentists may think their bodies will “get used to” the contortions involved in providing dental care. But the truth is, muscles don’t get used to it. They learn to compensate, leading to imbalances. An in-depth course on ergonomics and musculoskeletal issues inherent to dentistry seems reasonable, if not necessary, to teach us how to “undo” what dentistry does to our bodies daily.
We could prevent some issues and learn to address others by studying and implementing exercise and wellness techniques that address the needs of dental professionals. Contrary to popular belief, it is not as simple as working out at the gym, as some exercises will actually exacerbate musculoskeletal problems instead of helping. We are a special breed of healthcare providers. Lifestyle suggestions that help “regular people” likely will not meet our specific needs.
There’s More to Life than Dentistry
There’s no question that dentistry is a calling to which we dedicate our lives. We commit to being lifelong students and to serving our communities with integrity. But being a dentist is just part of who we are. We have other talents, hobbies, and relationships that complete our lives. If not nurtured, they can languish, leaving us unhappy and alone.
If dentistry has taken over and “real life” is passing you by, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you’re not spending time with the people and activities you relish outside of dentistry, it’s time to make changes and manifest the life you desire. After all, what is the point of working yourself to the bone if you don’t have the time, energy, or bandwidth to enjoy the fruits of your labor?
The purpose of dental school, of course, is to make a dentist out of you. Because it’s a human being receiving that title on graduation day, it would behoove our profession to have a well-rounded education that prepares dentists for what their futures actually hold, which, it turns out, is more than addressing problems in the oral cavity.
In Great Expectations, Dickens wrote “The office is one thing, and private life is another.” May dental schools evolve to better equip us for both.
Dr. Dovidio graduated in 1997 from Northwestern University Dental School with honors from the Academy of General Dentistry. She completed advanced training at the VA Medical Center in North Hills, California, where she served as chief dental resident. A certified yoga teacher, Dr. Dovidio lives in Southern California with her husband and two sons and runs Yoga for Dentists, an online community of dental professionals who are interested in healthy living. She offers free content on the Yoga for Dentists YouTube Channel and podcast as well as in a private Facebook group and on Instagram. For a free End of Workday Meditation you can download to your device, click here or visit yogafordentists.net. She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.