Understanding Your Personal Biases

To deliver the best care for patients with special considerations, it is important for us to check our biases at the door.

Society views beauty as someone who has straight, white teeth. I know that is a loaded statement, but it is the truth. Society has changed how we view weight, hair loss, and age. Now teeth are the next frontier we need to take a look at. People are judged based on how crooked their teeth are and whether any are missing. How sad it is that we have evolved this way? Think about it: do you make judgements deep down when you see a patient who has broken or missing teeth? Perhaps the person is homeless or violently lost their teeth. I know it is not a pleasant thing to think about but let us be honest. Are we being judgmental without really realizing it? It is important to understand and challenge these judgmental feelings.

Why do we have to? Because there is something called unconscious bias that filters our viewpoint of the world. This results in how we behave and ultimately how we treat a patient. When you are aware of your bias or prejudices, you can tackle them, but not being introspective may lead to unwelcome surprises down the road. Trust me, I do not want to look at anything unpleasant or upsetting. Would that also include someone in pain or someone with broken teeth? I hate to think about that, but that is something of which I am not aware. Are you? Are you aware of your reaction when you see someone with a challenging mouth? Isn’t the first step to fixing a problem being aware there is a problem?

So now what? All this self-awareness does not always make me feel warm and fuzzy. Instead, it makes me uncomfortable. I do not want to think that I have preconceived notions because of someone’s mouth but giving this some thought is a launching pad. Could this lead to treating a patient differently than you normally do? Sometimes, it is unconscious. That is why I encourage you to talk to your colleagues. Ask them if they ever feel that way. Ask if they ever do the opposite and stereotype the patient due to the choices that they make. What I have learned in my journey is that I have no idea what goes on in someone else’s head. I can only presume, which may sometimes be quite wrong.

When a patient comes in and has broken teeth, realize that they may be going through an exceedingly tough time. They see themselves in the mirror and may be embarrassed and stop smiling or talking as a result. Embarrassment is a powerful emotion. It can rapidly spiral into a depression. Think about it. If you needed an implant, you would have a hole in your mouth for a period of time. What will you think every time you look in the mirror or brush your teeth? It is so upsetting. Then, you learn that you have huge bills to get it fixed. Not everyone can afford the luxury of expensive implants and crowns. So, you compound the emotional upheaval with the financial one and what do you get? More despair.

This is why you need to be sensitive to this issue. Just put yourself in your patient’s shoes. If you run your practice that way, it will help work through personal biases and prejudices and help you to remember what really matters. You know what I am referring to. We are all beautiful. We are all vulnerable. We are all human. Do not discard the cavalier attitude with thinking that everything is hunky-dory. Ask and be sympathetic. Let your patient share how they are feeling. Check up on them when you are concerned. Refer them to counseling if that is warranted. But, most importantly, just be there.

Please share with me at diana2@discussdirectives.com whether you agree or disagree with this article. I am always interested in your thoughts.