Doctor, heal thyself

It amazes me that in these days of “Cosmetic” dentistry, we in the dental profession don’t all exude beautiful smiles.

by Sari Reis

It amazes me that in these days of “Cosmetic” dentistry, we in the dental profession don’t all exude beautiful smiles. What happened to “practice what you preach” or “physician heal thyself”? How can we expect our patients to accept our cosmetic case presentations when the dentist or staff members have crooked or discolored teeth, ill-fitting crowns with exposed metal margins, or even missing teeth? In most dental practices, the employer offers the staff the benefit of either free or discounted dental care, so the problem is not financial. That notwithstanding, it is definitely in the best interests of the practice to invest in the mouths of its employees. Would you go to a weight-control doctor who weighed in at 400 pounds? How about a marriage counselor who has been divorced three times? Probably not. So why should patients accept treatment plans for esthetic dentistry from dentists with bad teeth? Human nature what it is, when I am in a shoe store, I look at the salesperson’s shoes. When I am in a dress shop, I look at their clothes; and when I am in a dental office, I look at their teeth.

Several years ago, I went to an interview with a potential new client. I arrived a few minutes early and, after introducing myself to the patient coordinator, I sat down in the reception area. This was a general practice but they were well-known for their prosthodontics. There were three dentists in the practice who collectively had more than 100 years of experience. Shortly after our prescheduled appointment, the senior doctor, beautifully attired in a white shirt, a tie, and a long, white lab coat, came out to shake my hand. Taking his hand in mine, I smiled widely and said, “How do you do, Doctor? It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “You need your teeth bleached and your crowns redone,” he replied. “A person in the dental profession ought to have good-looking teeth.” I thought I would die of embarrassment, but he was right. I thanked him for his candor and told him I would do something about it. He became a client that day, and I made an appointment to get my teeth fixed. I also decided to advise each of my clients to take a good look at their own teeth and those of their employees. Here is how we go about it.

Each person who works in the practice receives a smile analysis. With all the technology available today, this is not hard to do. If you don’t have the intraoral and digital cameras to do a smile analysis, I suggest you take close-up pictures with your regular family camera from all angles. Use a lip/cheek retractor and make certain you have good lighting. Take a close-up that does not include the nose or eyes of the person. Have a staff member do the same for you. When everyone has been photographed, set up a specific meeting to talk about your smiles. At this meeting, staff members critique the pictures of themselves and one another, and make suggestions on how the smiles can be improved. In many cases they may require only bleaching. Other situations may call for cosmetic contouring, orthodontic appliances, veneers, crown-lengthening, or implants. If the procedures can be completed in your office, set aside one afternoon a month for employee dentistry until it is completed. If some procedures require specialists, call your friends and tell them you would like to have them treat your employee. Work out the fee between yourselves. Remember that this is a team project to demonstrate to your patients what healthy, attractive smiles look like. This is your handiwork or the work of your colleagues on display. Healthy, radiant smiles will make a positive impression on patients, especially when you are suggesting extensive and expensive cosmetic procedures. Patients will often ask the chairside assistant or the hygienist what they think about the treatment you are recommending. If these employees have noticeable dental defects, their credibility and reassurances are somewhat compromised.

Nothing gives the impression of good health more than a radiant smile. That’s why we talk about it so much in our marketing tools. Brochures, television ads, radio spots, magazine copy, the yellow pages, and even “pennysaver” coupons all address the magnificence of the healthy, white smile. We talk about how a beautiful smile can get you the job you want, the self-confidence you need, and even the life-partner you may be searching for. It’s all there in the black and white and vivid colors you use in your marketing materials. Do you believe it? If you do, then remember - “Charity begins at home,” or in this case, in your own office.

I have been in the dental profession for nearly 25 years. In the past 10 years, I have been a dental management consultant in practices across the country. I cannot tell you the number of practices I’ve seen where the dentist/owner, associate, or an employee displayed obvious dental problems. Not all the problems were simply esthetic. I have seen hygienists with periodontal disease and assistants and front desk personnel with observable facial caries. Too often, when I discussed these situations with the dentist employer, I was told, “There’s never enough time to fix employees’ teeth” or, “She’s never asked me to look at her teeth.” The health and appearance of your employees’ mouths are important enough to make time in the schedule - even if it means working on your day off.

When I was a chairside assistant many years ago, my employer - an excellent clinician with a large, affluent practice - came into the office one morning with a chipped left central incisor. It happened in a sailing incident, but since it didn’t hurt and there were no symptoms, he didn’t bother to get it fixed. I urged him to get it repaired because it looked terrible, but he said he didn’t have the time. It wasn’t until he was honored by the local dental society, and had his picture displayed in the dental journal, that he noticed how unprofessional his smile looked. The day after he saw that picture, he called his dentist and made an appointment. I remember wondering how our patients interpreted his chipped tooth. Today, it is all about cosmetics and much more important for us - as members of the profession - to be aware of what our smiles are projecting. So, get someone to take a close-up photo of your smile. Then take a good, long look at it. If it doesn’t radiate good health and an esthetically pleasing image, then you need to “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Sari Reis is a seasoned dental-management consultant and president of Reis Consulting Services in Carlsbad, Calif. She has more than 25 years of experience in dentistry and specializes in hands-on implementation. She recently became certified in Employment Law Compliance. Reach her at (760) 438-4033 or e-mail info@sarireisconsulting.com.

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