Can you relate? You’re having a pleasant conversation with someone you just met. Then the question “And what do you do for a living?” Proudly, you respond, “I am a dentist and you?” Too often, the response can be “No offense, but I hate the dentist.”
Depictions of dentists in popular culture have often been negative. Let’s face it, sometimes deservedly so. Access to care, poor oral hygiene, lack of treatment options, inadequate pain control all were lacking. The dentists who came before us recognized these shortcomings. They innovated, they changed, they improved the quality of care our profession can offer our patients.
I became a member of a profession that can help improve the quality of life of my patients by either restoring or maintaining health. We have all seen the impact relieving pain, restoring a smile, or letting someone chew again can have on a patient.
How can anyone “hate” that?
Still, the evidence suggests that nearly 36% of the population experiences some degree of dental fear or anxiety (Hill). So, unfortunately the data states the obvious: dentists are not loved like teachers, nurses, or professional athletes. Some data shows that we may actually be one of the more disliked professions.
OK, so why are we feared? Those who have had poor dental experiences are more likely to suffer dental anxiety. Often those experiences occur in childhood. Lack of early dental care and poor diet can lead to early dental disease. If we are truly being honest, even the most compassionate well delivered dental care can be traumatic for both a young child and the parents. Traumatic memories can linger for a lifetime.
Here is where preventative care is extremely important; educating parents and providing adequate access to care are of the utmost importance.
The other reason we are feared is more complicated. Dental fears often come from indirect learning from stories people hear about the dentist from their family members, friends, and the media. Quite often, stories which are at least exaggerated, if not false.
Have you noticed that some children arrive at your office for their very first appointment in tears and already suffering from dental anxiety? If this is their first dental visit, how can they already be anxious without any past traumatic experiences? As it turns out, these children indirectly learned their anxious response to dental treatment by observing the behavior of those around them. They might see the dentist in Finding Nemo torturing his patients, overhear their mother’s dread for her upcoming procedure, or listen to their friend exaggerate how long the needle was that the dentist used. Regardless of where or who they hear it from, children often arrive at dental visits with a preconceived notion that dentists might be monsters.
With improved dental technology and techniques, dentistry is more comfortable today than it has ever been. But how do we change the image of dentistry? Clearly, we cannot change the scenes in Finding Nemo or prevent children from hearing exaggerated stories told by their peers. So, I decided the best way to change the current cultural stigma around dentistry is to address it head-on, thus, my children’s book Dentists are Monsters.
My story is told through the eyes of Tony the Tooth. Tony is a new tooth, having just erupted into a mouth full of teeth. The older teeth begin scaring Tony with frightening stories of the dentist. Tony becomes fearful when he learns they are going to the dentist. Does the dentist really wear a mask because she can breathe fire like a dragon? He hopes not!
Just like most children, Tony develops his dental anxiety through indirect learning from other teeth. Although initially scared, Tony is eventually forced to visit the dentist where (SPOILER) he learns that dentists are, in fact, not monsters.
Dentists are Monsters helps parents teach children that many of the perceptions causing a fear of the dentist just are not true. Visiting the dentist doesn’t need to be scary and can often be rewarding. In my practice, I can make each individual patient feel comfortable. I hope Dentists are Monsters can help spread the message that dentists shouldn’t be feared to a larger audience.
Over the past two years, I worked with illustrators, editors, book layout designers, and printers to bring Tony’s story to life because I believe it might be able to help combat dental anxiety. I hope the story reassures children (and maybe even adults) that it is okay to be nervous to visit the dentist, but there also may not be truth in all the stories they’ve heard.
This single children’s book will not change the stigma surrounding dentistry, but I hope it helps at least one child feel better prepared for their first dental visits. Then, maybe someday that child will grow up, meet someone at a party who introduces themself as a dentist, and they will respond, “No way! I love the dentist!”
Dr. David Markiewicz is a New Dentist guest blogger and a member of the American Dental Association. He grew up in Illinois and is a graduate of the UIC College of Dentistry (’19). He practices with his father, Dr. Anthony Markiewicz, at their family practice in Mundelein, Illinois. When not at the dental office, you might find David and his wife admiring their cat, Gatsby.
Beaton L, Freeman R, Humphris G. Why are people afraid of the dentist? Observations and explanations. Med Princ Pract. 2014;23(4):295–301. doi:10.1159/000357223
Hill KB, Chadwick B, Freeman R, et al. Adult Dental Health Survey 2009: relationships between dental attendance patterns, oral health behaviours and the current barriers to dental care. Br Dent J. 2013;214:25–32.
Locker D, Thomson WM, Poulton R. Psychological disorder, conditioning experiences and the onset of dental anxiety in early adulthood. J Dent Res. 2001;80:1588–1592.