Empathy

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Open Wide

Empathy in the dentist's chair.

The many faces of dentistry

Picture this. You’re a young adult overwhelmed with the urge to help your fellow humankind, to improve their lives and wellbeing. Maybe you’ll be a nurse, a doctor, a teacher or a social worker. But no – you see your perfect future as …….. a dentist.

I was contemplating this as I lay back in my hygienist’s chair this morning. Let me tell you that my hygienist is VERY thorough. She is on a mission. Half way through I was ready to wave the white flag and confess that hey, my only immediate social engagements were the school run and a deli run for miso paste. I’m not judging the X factor – just polish up and let’s call it a day. But I persevered.

Somewhere about a third in, we both realised that this was going to be a heavier job than we’d bargained for. I confessed that I had basically abandoned flossing after my daughter was born – and she’s 7. Occasionally my prisoner of war role-playing would let me down and I would squeak, piteously, to which she would reply ‘sorry’ but carry straight on.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

When she moved on to the other side she declared that we were ‘nearly done’. But that was a lie. We had only just started with the sharp pointy scraping thing and still had the whining, screeching watery thing plus a repeat pointy scraping to go. Kudo et al found that the sound of an ultrasonic scaler decreased blood flow to the brain in patients with previous unpleasant dental experience and my brain was feeling the squeeze.

Smith et al found that people generally prefer female dentists as they think male dentists will expect them to endure more pain without complaining (or squeaking). I must say that I have not found this to be the case. The best (i.e the most comfortable and comforting) dentist I ever had was male.

So what must it be like to do a helping profession that requires you to spend your entire working day with people squirming and practically begging for mercy? You will hopefully be encouraged to hear that the literature on dental training regularly refers to empathy and studies such as Beattie et al have found empathy to increase during training. But it still begs the question…. Why? Apart from the reasonably good money and prospects, some of the perks of dentistry include having regular clientele, using lots of cool tools and a certain technical artistry, and the satisfaction of the job well done. And although people get stressed coming to the dentist – you can generally do something to help your patients – they don’t die.

And after my minor ordeal – I have a feeling of gum relief, as though someone had taken a nail out of my shoe. I pop into the chemist’s next to the deli and buy dental tape. My daughter is now 7, there’s just no excuse anymore. I guess dentists understand and accept better than most of us that big gains are worth a little pain. I leave any aspiring dentists out there with the wise words of Kudo et al: ‘It is recommended that dentists treat patients gently and with empathy to promote a friendly image of dentistry.’

 

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

more...

Subscribe to Empathy

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?