Dentistry in the Real World: Making the Adjustment from Student to First-Year Dentist
By: Anum Ali, DMD, Aspen Dental
My first year in practice presented new experiences that have taught me so much about dentistry and how to earn the trust of patients, beyond what I learned in dental school. And that’s no slight on my alma mater. It’s simply the fact that the real world presents challenges and opportunities that a textbook or lecture hall could never prepare you for. Since graduating from dental school in 2018, I have been presented with a variety of unexpected opportunities and, quite honestly, challenges and I’m loving every minute of it!
I attribute my professional and personal success to 3 big lessons: 1. Have a strong team and role model, 2. treat patients with respect and humility, and 3. be open to new ways to approach dentistry.
As I look back at how much I have grown in the last year there are a few things I would like to share with other “rookie” dentists to help them prepare for their transition from student to practitioner.
First, respect the environment and culture you’re in. I’m practicing in Alcoa, Tennessee, a small city south of Knoxville in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. I frequently see patients who are afraid of dentists and have never been taught about the importance of how their teeth and mouth affects their overall health. Some patients were never even taught the advantages of brushing their teeth twice daily.
I worried about filling this gap in patients’ dental education. How do I explain to someone who has never used a toothbrush as a child that preventive dentistry is important? How do I counsel and comfort a fearful patient, whose only prior experience with a dentist was to get a never-properly-cared-for tooth pulled? This emotional aspect of treating patients was not something I learned in dental school and was a difficult part of my adjustment from student to professional. Fortunately, I have had some outstanding mentors who have helped me learn how to earn my patient’s trust so I can give them the quality care they deserve.
There have been two exceptional mentors who taught me many valuable lessons that were based on their experiences in the “real-world”. When I first arrived, the lead dentist here in Alcoa, Dr. Clay Adams, taught me that taking a calm, evenhanded and educational approach to counseling wary or uninformed patients is critical to ensuring successful outcomes.
One example he taught me is how to patiently explain the importance of preventive dentistry to patients to help them understand the basic actions that they can do to avoid further damage to their teeth. For example, some patients are OK with bypassing a filling and would prefer the faster and less expensive treatment of pulling a troublesome tooth. Often, I see this when a back tooth that a patient believes no one will see is missing. In those cases, I spend time explaining the role of posterior teeth in chewing and anterior teeth in biting and smiling. And that if a posterior tooth is gone, it can put undue stress on the other teeth.
Another great mentor has been our in-office lab technician, Jon Quinones. Jon has steered me through the technicalities of making and adjusting dentures. Learning from him allows me to incorporate my textbook knowledge with his 40+ years of experience – a great problem-solving combination.
My reliance on my team, and my family, too, has served me well throughout my first year. This was especially apparent during a particularly trying time I endured early on in my journey from student to dentist. I was asked to cover for a dentist at another office 70 miles away. Very few dentists work in that area, so the caseload was vast and diversified. After a few weeks, I felt burned out and wondered if I’d made the right career choice.
But thanks to my mentors and office staff, and the immense support and love of my family, I soldiered on and gave my all. I proudly completed the three-month assignment and was reminded that our purpose as dentists is a noble one. I returned to Alcoa re-energized and ready for my next challenge.
And it arrived pretty quickly. Dr. Adams, my rock of support, accepted a new opportunity with another practice within the Aspen Dental network, so I was asked to be the lead dentist in our office. Was I ready for this type of responsibility after only a year in practice? That’s hard to say, but the transition has taught me to rely on the expertise of our dedicated staff, many of whom have decades of experience. One of the best ways that I have found to do this is to huddle with them twice daily, to debrief on difficult cases or simply ask their advice on dealing with unique patients or situations.
I strive to lead by example, which means being humble around every person and situation I encounter. Accountability is essential, too, and key to building trust. Everyone makes mistakes, and by owning up to them I am less likely to make them again, and more likely to earn the respect of colleagues and patients.
I’m proud of the fact that as I’ve grown as a professional I have earned the trust of my co-workers and patients. That was fostered by a willingness to listen to staff suggestions and, also to focus on hearing what my patient’s concerns are and taking the time to patiently discuss all options with them before making a final recommendation. This is vital to developing healthy long-term relationships.
One of the biggest decisions I had to make after graduation was whether to join a dental service organization (DSO). There were many factors that led to my decision to join the Aspen Dental family, but one of the biggest was that I wanted to be able to spend my time focusing on the needs of my patients. Because I don’t have to worry about the administrative side of running a dental practice I can devote my time to caring for my patients and having time to further my development. In the last year, I have been able to speak at dental conferences, which has been great because it allows me to meet other professionals in the industry and to share my learnings to help others who may be in similar situations to my own. Having to oversee the managerial side of the house, while getting my dentistry sea legs, would have been daunting.
One year into my career journey and I am more determined than ever to become the best dentist I can be. I am constantly motivated to help my patients get the care they need today.
Most importantly, I am striving to change how people think about dentistry. This human connection opens the door for patients to be less fearful of getting treatment. Whether it’s been one year or 10 between visits, every mouth deserves treatment to live more comfortably.
I think the little successes I experience every day have been the most rewarding part of my first year as a dentist. When patients trust me, I see it in their eyes and know that their perception of dentists is changing. It’s incredibly satisfying to build a bridge of trust between dentist and patient, and it’s fulfilling to be a part of a new generation that changes the way patients view dentistry.
In doing so, perhaps I’m also altering the view of dentistry from individuals who have not had great dental experiences in the past. If they have a good experience with me, I know they’ll come back regularly – with a happier, healthier, ever-smiling mouth.