What makes a good dentist?

good dentistJeremy Cooper examines the key lessons to learn to thrive in the surgery and beyond.

What makes a good dentist? It’s a question that I was asked recently – but I wonder how often we stop to consider the answer. 

The first thing to recognise is that it depends on who’s asking! The patient’s perspective will be very different from that of a professional.

People skills

For patients, that experience starts from the moment they contact the practice. Practice guru Jennifer de St Georges states in her lectures: ‘God lives on the front desk.’ Never has there been a truer phrase – at least, that is, for dental practice.

My number one factor in what makes a good dentist is thus – to surround yourself with good staff.

Never underestimate the effect of your staff in determining what makes a good dentist from the patient’s perspective.

It also took me a long time to learn that your staff are far better at choosing appropriate staff than you. They will know you and all your shortcomings, and who will be able to work with you – I seriously advise people to do this.

Many years ago, I worked as an associate where the principal was not technically gifted…but the staff were amazing. The principal could best be described as ‘old school’ but a pleasant professional manner meant complaints were rare even when things went askew.

That practice didn’t just teach me how to do full mouth rehab – it showed me the importance of how you interact with your patients. So my second  tip is to be approachable.

Some younger colleagues believe that attending nothing but clinical courses will make them a good dentist. They are misguided: ensure you learn about communication and practice management too.

Never forget: people buy people, not dentistry!

Getting treatment right

So what else is important to the patient? Obviously, you need to be empathic and communicate well, which brings me to number three. It’s another Jennifer de St Georges golden rule: inform before you perform, and no surprises.

What this means is simply tell them everything beforehand, including fees. We should all do this to satisfy informed consent, but we all can fall foul of this (including me). Telling them everything beforehand applies to postoperative effects, too – cover these before you treat. Discussing it after sounds like an excuse.

All this is not to downplay the importance of treatment itself.

If you need a local, for example, give it gently and as painlessly as possible.

This makes number four simple – don’t hurt them! No one likes pain but if it is unavoidable, be sure you explain all sequelae.

Listen to their concerns and don’t use the word ‘no’. Try: ‘I hear what you say, but I think the situation requires X, Y or Z.’

If the procedure is cosmetic, make sure that they are happy. Furthermore, if it does not look right then tell them – even before they see it. This builds the element of trust: remember they will only likely reject it or return unhappy when they see it in any case – and it will take you longer to rectify.

There is no point trying to convince someone that something is right if they do not agree.

Handling complaints

This leads me on to number five. When it hits the fan, take ownership of the problem immediately.

Complaints can get out of hand for a multitude of reasons. Besides, not being sympathetic or empathic dentists can be very defensive: say sorry! It is not an admission of guilt but of concern.

Letters may be necessary, but if possible, call and listen before responding. Before replying to any letters, or if something serious has occurred, call your indemnity or insurer first for advice. As a generality, forget your professional pride. If your problem can be dealt with by a return of fees, then do so. Firstly, most of the cards are in the patient’s hand, even if they are being unfair or plain wrong. If all it takes is to swallow your pride and return the money,  I would do it!

Never forget, that once the lawyers are involved, they will scrutinise all the care you have afforded to that patient.

All about you

So on to number six: educate yourself and never stop!

Today’s young dentist is spoilt for choice. Certain cosmetic courses are extremely expensive and might be out of the reach, but if you’re working in the NHS there are lots you can attend at modest charges.

Things like comprehensive year-long courses will not just further your knowledge, but increase your repertoire and skills. You will gain confidence too! Never stop learning and always question what you do.

Number seven is closely related: enjoy your work! Whether it’s NHS, private, general practice, hospital or community dentistry – if you’re not happy, move on. 

Owning your own practice increases the pressures placed upon you. Sure, there are financial rewards but stress generally increases. Gain as much experience as you can as an associate before taking on a practice.

Having a life outside dentistry is important. Work to live – don’t live to work. Exercise, having a social life and taking regular breaks are a necessity for stopping or mitigating burnout.

Finally, number eight: understand you are human. Dentists tend to be perfectionists and if you ask them how things are, will tell you all is great.

But things do go wrong, and we all make mistakes. Speak to your friends, colleagues or family about these problems, rather than bottling them up.

If you feel like you can’t, social media (such as the ‘Mental Dental’ group on Facebook) can help you vent, but it is much better to speak to a colleague.

There is an incredible array of help for people when things get too much. One that I am involved in is Confidental, where you can speak anonymously to a fellow dentist. They will listen to you non-judgmentally, help you sort things out, and if necessary signpost you to further help.

Whether these points resonate with you or not, remember that dentistry is a great career, and what really makes a good dentist is simply one who cares for other people.

The golden rules

  1. Surround yourself with good staff
  2. Be approachable
  3. Inform before you perform
  4. Don’t hurt the patient
  5. Own it when things go wrong
  6. Educate yourself
  7. Do what makes you happy
  8. Don’t forget – you are only human.

Contact Confidental on 0333 987 5158.

This article was first published in Dentistry magazine. Read the latest issue of Dentistry magazine here.

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