Career Paths in Dentistry

Dental Products Report, Dental Products Report March 2023, Volume 57, Issue 3

Sometimes in dentistry, the bumpier path is the most enjoyable path.

There are very few aspects of the Cleveland winter that I find pleasant: It’s dark when I get home from work; the trees are bare and spooky looking. But there’s one thing I genuinely love: sledding. I used to think of it as a child’s activity, a way for me to feel like a good dad, but after several seasons of taking my kids to various long, steep hills, I realized that I myself get an extraordinary amount of enjoyment from the speed, the wind on my face, and the softness of the snow when I crash.

One thing every sledder can relate to is the packed snow that forms after repeated rides down the same slope. If we happen to be the lucky early birds who are first to find a hill right after a heavy snowfall, we notice that no paths have yet been laid out. We can go anywhere! We can begin anywhere and end anywhere; at least, at first. After a few trips, our freedom is dramatically curtailed. Even when we try to start from a different point, forge a new path, the sled inevitably finds its way to the path already traveled. This is especially true as more and more sledders show up, continuing to pack snow on the original path, increasing the slickness and speed, and continuing to limit the freedom and variability of the downhill paths.

My career as a dentist began in the early 2000s when I was a GPR resident in a very busy hospital dentistry program. If I remember correctly, we saw around a million patients a day and did about a billion hygiene checks. I simply didn’t have time to learn about the patient, develop rapport and trust, and thoroughly examine the treatment plan and radiographs before beginning to treat. When I first encountered a patient, I often already had a loaded, uncapped syringe in my hand. “Hey patient, I’m Dr Gupta. How are you doing today? Now open wide so I can stick a needle in your face.” I began my career at the top of a hill with fresh, untouched snow. The path I laid down was one of high efficiency, high production, and very little emotional connection. The problem: I was pretty good at efficiency, so it felt natural. The other problem: I had started a practice from scratch, with the hopes of offering boutique service and delivering high-end dental procedures to a discerning patient population.

After completing the GPR, and with a fledgling private practice to nurture, my professional endeavors brought me to another high-volume, high-production clinic. The snow was packed, and my sled continued to fly down the hill. With every working day, my intention was to produce more, and my bosses at the clinic rewarded me for it. I would walk into operatories with no idea what procedure I would be doing (thankfully, my assistant would always have it written down). I would perform procedures without doing the appropriate amount of planning and would invariably miss important clinical features. I would encounter irritation and impatience in patients who wanted to talk, to share their long-term goals, or who had concerns that required thought, follow-up, and time.

This approach may have worked out fine, but I didn’t really like the dentist I was becoming. Moreover, my attitude was beginning to permeate the culture of the practice that was originally supposed to be all about connecting with patients, slowing down, providing extraordinary service, creating a special and unique experience, and delivering comprehensive, high-quality dentistry. To make matters worse, my back was already starting to hurt. I was coming home from work tired and irritable. I had a hard time imagining a future that involved decades of this.

The solution was simple: extricate myself from the high-volume culture and slow down. The means to the end, however, were not simple. The snow was firmly packed. Walls had formed on either side of my path. Even when I started the day convinced that this time it would be different, my mind, my body, and my intentions all drifted toward the well-worn path. By the end of the day, my first instinct upon entering the operatory was to grab the syringe before even saying hello to the patient.

The solution, I realized painfully, depended on my starting point. If I started anywhere near the path, my sled would inevitably fall into it. However, if I started far away, on new snow, there was a chance for change. The new snow was bumpy, strewn with tree branches, and didn’t even have a steep grade. It was, at first, a lot less fun.

The reason I had so much difficulty being efficient in the new path, and the reason so many dentists who want to change their practice style find it equally difficult, is that it’s no fun to experience those bumps and branches when there is such a clearly defined and accessible path nearby. This is made especially arduous when financial perceptions make us feel that the only way to pay our bills is to do what we have always done.

Let’s take a look at some of the ruts that may have been created in your life (they certainly were in mine):

The first thing you do when you wake up is look at social media, which promotes comparison with others and a wholly unnecessarily feeling that you need to “keep up.”

You sit down to do a hygiene check, praying that the patient has no concerns and nothing to talk about, so you can get back to “real work.”

You spend money without intentionality, doing what you believe is normal for an upper-middle-class professional, but seeding even deeper financial anxiety and even desperation.

You consistently “settle” for a toxic member of your team because you believe he or she is the only one who knows how to calibrate the CBCT, test the water lines, or execute some other complex operational task and that your office will go up in flames if they leave.

You spend lunchtime looking at your phone rather than socializing with your team, going for a walk, checking in on family, or anything else that might serve you better.

You eat and drink according to the norms of the people around you, rather than what you know is best.

We live in a society where burnout is real. Dissatisfaction, despite a myriad of comforts, is rampant, and our visions and goals for our lives remain unmet. It is time to look deeply at the paths packed with snow in your life and ask yourself whether they are truly serving you or whether you travel down them only because they offer the easiest way forward. If they aren’t serving you, begin looking for the clumpiest, most branch-laden swath of snow on the other side of the hill. It won’t be fun, at first, but every time you travel down it, the snow will become more firmly packed.