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A Day in the Life of a Dentist

A dentist is an accredited medical professional who specializes in the care of teeth, gums, and mouths. As with most medical professions, a keen eye for detail, comprehensive medical understanding, manual dexterity, and strong interpersonal skills are important. Dentists deal with procedures that involve actual manipulation of the teeth or gums. Dentists have also evolved to provide cosmetic care that addresses society’s perception of hygiene and health, as with the burgeoning business in whitening teeth. Problems dealing with the jaw or any invasive oral procedure are usually undertaken by an oral surgeon, and dental hygienists and dental assistants do much of the routine dental cleanings, maintenance, and X-rays. A significant part of a dentist’s job involves educating patients about ways to preserve a healthy mouth, and the best dentists are skillful communicators. (Gum disease, for example, ultimately attacks more than 87 percent of the population.) Cavities can develop and worsen for a long time undetected by a patient, and sometimes the only remedy is root canal therapy (less painful than in the early days but still expensive) or extraction of the tooth. Dentists are the preventative doctors par excellence, ever alert for early signs of swollen or bleeding gums, tooth decay, etc., but often they simply step in and correct the results of their patients’ less-than-stellar personal hygiene. While dentists encourage frequent visits to maintain good health, the reduced likelihood that patients have comprehensive health insurance coverage for dental work as compared to other forms of health care has been known to strain that effort. Dentists work 7–10-hour days, except when emergencies arise, which can occasionally lengthen the workday. The life of a dentist is very similar to that of any other doctor, except that dentists keep regular office hours—one notable attraction of the profession. Many of the dentists we surveyed responded that although the hours are long, one is able to lead a fairly predictable life, take standard vacations around major holidays, and enjoy weekends with family. Reasonable hours were cited on over 90 percent of our surveys as one of the most important features that led people to dentistry as opposed to any other medical specialty. Dentists pay enormous premiums for liability insurance, large sums for fixed costs such as rent and equipment, and significant overhead for qualified personnel and quality products. Since each patient treated corresponds to additional revenue received, dentists often try to see as many patients as they can on a given day. A dentist usually spends one afternoon a week managing paperwork and insurance claims. The amount of time required to process this paperwork is likely to increase as changes in health care management force doctors to spend more time filing and defending claims of even routine prevention for their insured patients.

Paying Your Dues

Prospective dentists must complete a set of rigorous academic and professional requirements. Academic course work on the undergraduate level should include anatomy, chemistry, physics, and biology. All prospective dentists must complete four years at an American Dental Association-accredited school and pass the individual exams administered by each state. Passage of the National Dental Board Exam (administered twice a year), however, can exempt the candidate from the written portion of the state exams. If you wish to teach, do dental research, or engage in a dental specialty, an additional two to five years of study is required. After passing the exams and receiving a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) degree, a new dentist may choose to apprentice under an established practitioner for several years, after which time junior associates may either buy a larger share of the partnership or leave to start their own practices. Nearly a quarter of all graduates buy into or purchase outright an existing practice after graduation. Financing is rarely a problem, as most dental practices are considered good investments by banks, as long as the internal cash flow of the practice is properly managed.

Present and Future

Records of dental exams have been found among artifacts from ancient Egypt, when dentists doubled as surgeons. Long an independent branch of medicine with its own subspecialties, dentistry will continue to be a growing industry for the coming years. But as with all medical professions, the future of tax and health care reform will significantly affect the financial attractiveness of the career. The field is also changing in other respects. More dentists are entering group practices instead of private practices. This cuts back on insurance and overhead expenses. The focus of dentistry is shifting toward preventive care and cosmetic procedures.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

The hours can be long initially, as new dentists must take time to familiarize themselves with their patients’ histories, needs, and personalities. It is crucial for new dentists to earn their patients’ trust. Job satisfaction increases as dentists begin to hone their “chairside manner” and develop a daily routine that suits them. It should be noted that some dentists find themselves disillusioned with their chosen career. Many dentists are frustrated to find that, although they are similarly educated to physicians, they do not receive the same respect in the public eye. It can also be depressing to repeatedly hear people say, “No offense, but I hate dentists.”

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year veterans have established reputations and built up a client base. Take-home pay rises as they pay off the initial charge of buying into an existing practice. Many dentists work long hours during years three to eight to build their practice with the expectation of future rewards. The downsides are high-partnership failure and the ongoing crisis in private versus group practice.

TEN YEARS OUT

Dentists who have practiced for 10 years have reasonable satisfaction from what they do. They have established a consistent and loyal client base, have a range of experience and a degree of expertise, and earn significant income. Many dentists become involved in professional associations and professional philanthropy (where businesses donate services to people in need), and write scholarly articles. The hours are still long, but drop off over the next 10 years. Most dentists are still working full-time even at the 30-year mark, and a significant number continue for as long as four decades before retiring.