Empathy and Ethics

Dentistry, Uncategorized

Not to come off as conceited, but I am pretty good at what I do. I practice evidence-based dentistry. I follow guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. And probably the most important thing is that I try and approach every child’s case with empathy.

When I was in dental school, I came across a video of a young physician giving a lecture to a class of dental students who, not long before his speech, had been diagnosed with Stage IV terminal lung cancer. He had been given something like a 6 month life expectancy. This doctor spoke about the ascent in his medical career, how his professional choices were always guided by his pursuit of wealth and acquiring materialistic things. He ultimately achieved what he thought was the pinnacle of ‘success’. He shared photos of his mansion, his multiple fancy cars, him posing with A-list celebrities, you name it. A luxurious lifestyle indeed.

And then, tragedy struck. After exercising one day, he felt a pain in his back. A physician friend evaluated him, and the grim diagnosis was made. In this lecture, he talks a great deal about regrets. Regrets in valuing the wrong things in his life. How, when he would view his patient’s charts – that is all they were to him, charts; not patients, not people with stories to tell and families at home that cared for them. The irony being, that he was now a chart on someone else’s stack.

I keep that doctor’s lecture in the back of my mind with every exam that I do. I tell the parents I talk to, that the recommendations I make are the same for their child as they would be for my own. I try and enter every exam and every treatment procedure with a mindfulness of ‘how would I want myself and/or my loved ones to be treated?’ As a health care provider, I feel like that principle and way of thinking has been a guiding light for me.

I had a residency instructor tell me once “you will not be able to satisfy everyone.” I am glad to have gotten that advice early into my career. I spend a good amount of time explaining to parents my visual and x-ray findings. I try to present in detail my treatment recommendations for their child. And I thoroughly try and answer any questions they might have. If they continue to have any disputes or doubts, I will attempt to resolve those concerns but, beyond that, I am a big believer in families getting second opinions as other dentists may be able to be more accommodating to their desires and expectations.

I have had parents wanting to extract cavitated but still very much savable teeth because they “were just baby teeth.” I have had parents decline any form of sedative being given to their child despite the kid being extremely uncooperative for their exam and needing lots of dental work done. I will try, to some extent, to hear the parents out, understand their point-of-view, present my own side of the story, offer my experience and insight; and hopefully we all can find some common ground to accomplish what needs to be done. However, never do let parents flat out dictate my course of care; and if I get the sense that they are dismissive of or lack trust in my training and experience, then I often times feel it is best for all parties involved to go their separate ways.

Probably one of the most hurtful and offensive things I have heard is when a parent believes my treatment recommendations are financially motivated. Coming up through professional school, we all take the Hippocratic oath to practice in the best interest of our patients. And, while that hopefully sets the high standards of care by which most (if not all) medical and dental professionals care for people; it is undoubtedly idealistic. Honestly, I cannot blame people for having that perception and that kind of cynicism that their doctors might be driven by greed.

When I draft a treatment plan for a patient, I take into consideration their age, their health history, their behavior and temperament, their nutritional habits, their home oral hygiene routine (or lack there of), all to try and gauge their cavity risk. I can proudly say I have never made a clinical decision where I put my own self-interests above what I think is best for my patient. But I do have a genuine concern for the direction I think the business of medicine and dentistry seem to be going. With the rapidly rising costs of tuition for these professional schools (nearly an average of $300k for dental school according to Student Loan Hero), with constantly decreasing reimbursements from insurance companies, and with dental schools graduating and saturating the job market – I hate to say it, but I think it may be a legitimate thing to wonder if all that debt burden starts to affect the way we practice in some way.

On that somber note, I want to thank you for reading this post. Hopefully there are some interesting points for discussion somewhere in all of this. As always, I welcome any thoughts and input. Until next time…

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