The dark days of dentistry

You want to know a secret?

Sometimes I don’t want to go to work. . . Sometimes I don’t want to pull that tooth or make that denture or place that composite.

Dr. Vaughn

Dr. Vaughn

Sometimes . . . I don’t want to do dentistry at all.

But if you’re a practicing dentist reading this right now, you know full well that this is no secret. That this happens to everyone. And if it hasn’t happened, have no doubt that it will.

I’ve been out of school two years now. And while that’s not near long enough to develop a solid practice philosophy or to really figure out where my place is in the profession, it’s plenty long enough to have a few of those dark days.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about backaches, headaches, handaches. I’m talking about patients that don’t like me. Patients that I don’t like back. Procedures that make me sweat that shouldn’t make me sweat.

Just yesterday, my arm spasmed and locked up during an extraction of a single rooted premolar. I couldn’t believe it. And what’s worse is that it happened minutes after so confidently telling the patient that “this will only take a minute.”

And then there’s the stories you hear from your colleagues. Oh those stories! Anything you can possibly imagine – the worst of the worst – and I bet it’s happening in a dental office somewhere in America right now: insurance fraud, verbal abuse of staff, overtreating patients, undertreating patients, and every sort of treating in between. Condemning our entire ethical handbook one code at a time.

Many of us have heard stories of associate dentists being taken advantage of. New dentists are particularly vulnerable here. I’ve heard of new dentists having all of their preps checked. Of being told they can only do hygiene. Of being hired on and then not even being paid because the practice was actually a sinking ship.

“Well why don’t they just look for a new job then?!”

Sounds easy doesn’t it? Just go get a new job.

Go ahead. Dive into that black sea of classified ads looking for an associate who “is willing to work nights and weekends” and “is proficient at molar endo and impacted third molars.” Ads that make magnificent claims about their 5-star practice that end up being worth no more than the paper the ad was printed on.

It’s tough out there. I’ve sat in interviews that have made my gut turn. I’ve been told that I’d “have to burn a few bridges to work here.” Or that “no vacation time is allowed your first two years.” And what’s worse is that most of these only want you two days a week. So if you want to pay the bills (and chip away at your half-million-dollars in debt), you accept the offer and then go right back to the job hunt to find a second mediocre job that hopefully won’t conflict with the first one.

You see. . .the fairy tales I heard growing up of how great of a profession dentistry was, have many times turned out to be just that. . . fairy tales.

But one thing I know for sure, is that fairy tales have silver linings and morals and lessons they aim to teach. And so do the dark days of dentistry.

What I’ve learned is that these days don’t last forever. The pain is only temporary. And if we’re able to stay motivated and get through them, the clouds will certainly pass.

I don’t talk about the dark days because I enjoy them. I talk about them because it’s an unfortunate but concrete reality. The stories above are all real and completely free of exaggeration. Those are our new dentist peers out there living these stories every day. And so to not talk about them and pretend they don’t happen is to create false security in who we are as professionals.

Dentistry is not exempt from the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.

There will be days where you want to give up. There will be days where the stresses seem to be too much. But don’t let them overcome you. Find an outlet. Vent your frustrations, and be free of them.

Because one day you will find that perfect job. You will pay off that monstrous debt. You will find your place in this profession that you’ve been working so hard for your whole life.

And when that does eventually happen. When you find your place. Don’t forget who you were and where you came from and all those struggles you faced in your early days. And when the tables turn and you are the owner dentist interviewing a bright-eyed, naive new dentist. . .

Remember that the dark days are real, and that this new dentist may very well be in the thick of them.

For information on staying well in the dental profession, visit ADA Center for Professional Success.

Dr. Joe Vaughn is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and a member of the American Dental Association. He grew up in Alabama and recently graduated from The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry in 2015. He now lives in Seattle, Washington, and works at Neighborcare Health, a community health center in Seattle. Two cups of coffee, writing and indie music are everyday occurrences for Joe. Go Seahawks and Roll Tide!


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