By Katie Dumbell, DDS, MS
In dental school, we are taught the technical skills that are required to be a dentist, but some of the most important skills to being the best dentist aren’t things you learn in a classroom. While technical hand skills and a competent knowledge of treatment options are what give a dentist his or her license, the skills that make you the best dentist are the ones that lead to patient retention and referrals.
Communication and interpersonal skills
Dentists are often a bunch of brainiacs. We must be to get into dental school. You could be the top of your class from kindergarten to graduation day of dental school, but, without the ability to communicate, it is difficult to succeed in dentistry.
A vast majority of what dentists do all day is communicate, both verbally and nonverbally. To patients, to staff, and to other clinicians, we are constantly communicating! To be a truly great dentist, you need excellent interpersonal skills to sell yourself and your treatment plan to the patient.
Excellent interpersonal skills are vital to build rapport with patients and have good chairside manner. Being attuned to your patient’s needs and wants will increase patient satisfaction and make for a smooth ride into treatment plan acceptance.
Furthermore, as dentists, we treat a diverse population from all walks of life. Developing skills to successfully communicate with anyone that walks through your office doors is priceless.
It is a rarity when things in dentistry go according to plan. A patient scheduled for a time-consuming full mouth rehab can be a no-show, wasting much of your day. An emergency patient with extraoral swelling can walk into your office right before quitting time before the weekend. A seemingly simple extraction you booked for a 30-minute time slot turned into a complex, time-intensive surgical extraction. While attempting to restore an anterior Class V with composite, you can struggle to attain hemostasis. Being Type A perfectionists make us great dentists, but it is our ability to overcome these daily bumps in the road that can make or break the patient’s experience. Dentists need to always have a backup plan (sometimes multiple backup plans) if things don’t go as expected and be able to execute them with a level head. Learning to be adaptable and skillful in handling the unexpected is what can take you from a good dentist to the best dentist.
A lover of learning
A dental school professor once told me that half of what we learn in dental school will be obsolete in five years. It is true! Dentistry is this amazing and innovative field that is always changing, meaning the day you get your diploma is only the start of your educational career. From new biomaterials to new medication recommendations to new treatment techniques, it is our job as dentists to constantly learn and evolve in our career. We all must meet minimum requirements of continuing education credits to maintain our licenses. The best dentists don’t just stop at the minimum. They go above and beyond and stay on top of the newest literature to provide the best evidence-based dentistry for their patients.
A leader that listens
As dentists, we are team leaders who set the tone of the office. Dentists are the leaders of assistants, hygienists, receptionists, office manager, and sometimes more. Every dentist requires leadership skills to keep the ship moving throughout a chaotic day, but there are a lot of moving parts to help choreograph in the delicate dance that is a dental schedule.
However, leadership does not equate to authoritarianism. Dentists don’t have to rule with an iron fist. The best dentists can lead their team with constructive criticism and a positive attitude. A key part in that is listening to your staff. It is crucial to remain humble and understand that you are their leader. However, without them, you won’t be able to be productive.
One missing cog in the dental machine can be catastrophic, so ensuring each team member feels supported and appreciated in their position can go a long way. Staff turnover is a costly problem to have, so finding that delicate balance between leader and listener not only makes you a great boss, but a great dentist!
A painless experience
Creating a painless (or nearly painless) experience in the dental chair is probably the most important aspect of being the best dentist. I’m sure every dentist has heard the phrase, “I hate the dentist.” And why do you think that is? Pain, of course!
The people who say they hate or avoid the dentist is because they associate us with pain. Can we blame them? We work in an intimate part of the body shortly after introduction and frequently put needles and sharp instruments into their mouths. There is a lot to fear.
We’ve also developed a pretty bad reputation in society as supposed pain-loving sadists who just want to watch our patients squirm. From the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors to Jennifer Aniston’s character in the movie Horrible Bosses, depictions of dentists in the media are frequently associated with pain or torture. The best dentists can combat all that fear, anxiety, and bad press by creating a painless, comfortable experience.
When patients are talking about their visit to the dentist, they are not telling their friends and family about how perfect of a contact your dentist created with a Class II restoration. They are not raving about the awesome marginal seal you miraculously managed to achieve with the crown on #15. They are talking about whether it hurt or not. The best dentists perfect their anesthetic techniques, so patients don’t feel a thing from start to finish. They perfect atraumatic extractions and set realistic expectations for post-op discomfort. They ensure an easy breezy root canal treatment. Ensuring patients experience as little pain as possible during and after a procedure is the best way to improve the patient experience, increase patient retention, and increase referrals!
Background: Dr. Katie Dumbell attained a Doctorate in Dental Surgery at University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Dentistry in May of 2019. Prior to dental school, Dr. Dumbell attained a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences and B.S. in Psychology from Southeast Missouri State University in 2013 and an M.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology from Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville in 2015. As a graduate researcher, Dr. Dumbell studied biomarkers for the early detection and diagnosis of submandibular salivary gland cancers at SIU School of Dental Medicine, completing a Masters Thesis on Dentin Matrix Protein-1.
Dr. Dumbell is currently a Staff Dentist at a Federally Qualified Health Center in Kansas City, MO pursuing a lifelong passion for public health, treating patients of all ages. In addition to working full-time as a clinician for the underserved, Dr. Dumbell is currently a student at A.T. Still University College of Graduate Health Studies in pursuit of a Masters in Public Health – Dental Emphasis.
Related article: The new dentist’s job and the learning curve