‘You look too young to be a dentist’
When I was doing my anesthesia rotation during the intern year of oral surgery residency back in 2000, I was sitting behind the curtain in my “shower cap” and surgical mask, watching the beeping monitors for a plastic surgeon working on a breast augmentation case. At some point, he turned around, noticed me, raised his eyebrows and spoke slowly with a deep tone of voice: “Does your mother know you are here?”
Being an Asian female who is petite, I’ve been mistaken countless times for a dental assistant or a nurse, never a dentist, let alone surgeon since the beginning of my career.
Looking younger than my actual age, I’ve always had a hard time during my early career to establish credibility with my patients. The first question most patients ask would be “You look so young!! How long have you been doing this?” or “Can I see that (pointing to an older male colleague) dentist over there?” I was also getting questions such as: “Are you strong enough to take out this tooth?” or “I’ve never had a woman dentist.”
After years of practice, and after owning my own practice, I’ve learned how to handle these questions and to be able to establish trust early during the patient encounters. I would like to share some tips with you in hope to make your life easier.
- Dress professionally. If you wear scrubs, consider embroidering your name and title, or add a coat, or warmer jacket with your name and title. I prefer wearing business casual in my office, which means a blouse with dress pants, plus a loafer.
- Display your credentials in the treatment room and on your practice website, so that the patient has a chance to view your hall of fame before meeting you. You worked hard during dental school and you earned the credentials necessary to help your patients. Display them with confidence. My consult room has my diplomas and certificates framed on one wall where the treatment chair is facing. Several of my patients start to do mental calculations before I come into the treatment room and figure out how many years of school and training I’ve gone through. Build that instant trust.
- Practice on your body language with a professional friendly approach. Sit at the patient’s eye level, smile and greet the patient. “Hi, I am Dr. ____, I will be taking care of you today.” Speak slowly in a calm tone of voice to establish a sense of authority. Speaking too fast, too loud, or too high-pitched can come through as being nervous or defensive. If there are any questions regarding your credibility, calmly state that you have gone through years of school and training and that they will be in good hands. Start to explain your treatment calmly and slowly in simple words, make good eye contact, and review your patient’s medical history and perform a thorough exam. Avoid jargon, such as “composite” or “number 13.” Avoid trigger words such as “pain” or “needle.” I like to pay attention to small things about a patient in order to strike a conversation. This can help to make the patients feel more at ease and less defensive. For example, if I were to see an older gentleman wearing a hat that spells “U.S. Veteran,” I might ask about where he was stationed. I might relate to something or someone I know personally that had similar experience. At the end of the visit, ask your patient, “Have I answered all of your questions?”
- Act professionally with your staff members. This is very important because as much as you are friendly, if you behave like buddies with your assistants or office manager, using casual language, your patients will not view you as a professional dentist. Make sure to communicate with your team members as well when you first enter a working environment. You may openly bring this up with your colleagues, your employer and your staff members about this issue. Address the fact that you look young and you would like to be addressed professionally in order to establish credibility. No one would refute that. Use “Dr. (last name)” to address yourself and one another among your colleagues while patients are around. Establish this early in your career and let others know how you’d like to be addressed. Some people address themselves as “Dr. (first name).” In my opinion, “Dr. (last name)” sound a lot more professional.
- Avoid jokes. Come out and discuss openly with your patients about looking young. I still get comments these days, although less, about “you look so young!” I typically thank them for the compliments, and tell them I get this a lot, but I assure them that I have been doing this for a long time. I typically avoid jokes like “yeah you are my first patient!” Most patients are anxious and some humor will not go well with these patients, and certainly not considered good bedside manner. Most patients are in fear of the unknown and there might be an internal reference of a series of bad experiences. Speak sincerely and authentically is your best approach.
I hope these tips help you with a good start as a new dentist. Ultimately, developing good bedside manner, relating to your patients and delivering excellent clinical work will help you to establish credibility, rapport and relationship with your patients quickly.
Dr. Y. Cathy Hung is a board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon. She graduated from the School of Dental and Oral Surgery (now College of Dental Medicine) of Columbia University in 2000 and completed her oral and maxillofacial surgery training at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in Bronx, New York in 2004. She is the practice owner of Prospect Oral Surgery Center in Monroe Township, New Jersey. Dr. Hung is part of ADA’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership Class 2019-20. She frequently writes posts, blogs, and articles on various clinical or practice management topics. Her upcoming book on cultural competency for health care professionals is expected to be published in Spring 2020. She was recently honored with Lifetime Achievement Award as “World’s Top 100 Doctors” by Global Summit Institute, which features more than 70 countries of practitioners.