Introduction to the TAO of dentistry

May 1, 2006
Some of my favorite teaching stories come from the Sufi tradition and are about a character called Mullah Nasruddin.

Some of my favorite teaching stories come from the Sufi tradition and are about a character called Mullah Nasruddin. The Mullah is a wise fool, an enigmatic wonder, and his stories have numerous meanings that can be interpreted on many levels of reality. Mostly, the stories show us that things aren’t always as they appear. The following tale is one of my favorites, and certainly illustrates the plight of all of us in dentistry.

Nasruddin is sitting in the center of a Middle Eastern marketplace, crying his eyes out, a platter of peppers spilled out on the ground before him. Steadily and methodically he pops peppers into his mouth and chews deliberately, at the same time wailing uncontrollably.

A stranger walks up to him and asks, “What’s wrong, Nasruddin?”

A crowd begins to gather, wondering what is causing this extraordinary behavior.

As tears splatter down his face, Nasruddin proclaims through the sobbing, “I’m looking for the sweet one.”

That is the paradox of Nasruddin, the wisdom of the fool. The wisdom is obvious; it is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism - we cling to our desires regardless of what we have to endure. Even when our desire yields nothing but suffering, we continue to move onward and upward in our pursuit of pleasure.

I used to practice dentistry like that - like a baseball player looking for my best pitch. I asked a practice-management expert for a way to get a better handle on this dilemma, and he said, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you come up with a prince.” In other words, I needed a way to identify the sweet peppers. Businesses spend zillions of dollars trying to figure out ways to identify and attract those beautiful sweet peppers. Imagine if the Mullah had a way to home in on those targeted veggies. How much grief could he avoid? By extrapolation, how simple our lives and practices would be!

Great news! There is a way. No, our patients don’t come with bold identifying markers. Sometimes an educated guess might work depending on the origin of the patient, like knowing if the pepper came from Spain or Mexico. It does make a difference.

One of the many reasons to do a comprehensive examination is to look for the markers that help you tell the difference between various kinds of patients. First, we must realize that we all have different tastes. What I call a sweet pepper, others might call semi-sweet or even bitter. So the first step is to decide just what your ideal patient looks like. When I sit down to do this, I look at three very important traits. By looking for evidence of these traits during my interview process, I am able to better tailor the level of sophistication of my treatment plans and case presentations.

I do this identifying process through questions. I ask a lot of questions. That is why I schedule time to interview every patient before I begin to work on them. The first trait I look for is trust. I like working with people who trust me and whom I trust. Trust does a lot for mutual respect. One thing I have learned through the years is that people like to do business with people they like, and it’s hard to like someone you can’t trust. It certainly makes the process a lot easier when we work with people we trust, but that’s not the only factor.

The second trait is appreciation. We live in a world where many forces are attempting to commodify just about everything. To practice high-quality dentistry, we must take a stand to create the standard of practice we desire. The problem we face is that all patients do not appreciate the level of care we want to provide. Wouldn’t it be nice to know how much appreciation people have for us and our dentistry before we begin to work?

The final trait is ownership. I like doing dentistry that lasts. Durable dentistry takes a lot of time and attention to details. As stated above, this requires a certain level of appreciation, but it also requires responsibility on the patient’s part to keep the dentistry going and going.

There are other traits you might look for in your patients, like a sense of humor or good looks, but trust, appreciation, and ownership - or what I like to call the TAO of dentistry - are integrated because all three must be present for the system to work with any integrity. These three traits are the ones that guide me.

If the Mullah had a similar system to guide him, oh, how sweet life would be!

Dr. Barry F. Polansky practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. He is the author of the book, “The Art of the Examination,” and publisher of Dental Life, a newsletter dedicated to finding balance and happiness in private dental practice. Founder of the Academy of Dental Leadership, (, which offers small group and individual practice coaching, Dr. Polansky is on the visiting faculty of The Pankey Institute. Reach him via e-mail at [email protected].

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