‘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?”

Dr. Hung

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.

Sound familiar?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

24 comments

  • No humor or jokes? Instead of that I would say “prove your competence”, no one will question. Not acting as someone I am not. (Yes went through all of this.)

    • Humor, is different from jokes. Humor is necessary to ease patient’s anxiety. Jokes, especially in regards to your credential, can diminish your authority as a professional. Once you have established with your patient and make your patient feel comfortable, you can determine how humor can be put into play in your interactions with patients.

  • Dr. Hung, Congratulations on publishing this informative article. Regarding professionalism in the work place and other ideas of interpersonal interaction. I agree that this approach will make a significant difference in the success and grow of the practice.
    I am hoping that apply the points that itemized and share them with friends on other media platforms.

  • Kate Dively, DDS

    Very well-written article. Excellent tips. I encounter this quite often, despite being out of school for 12 years. Most of these practices I already use but will incorporate the others in my approach also. Thank you for your insight!

  • I have also overcome with the same issue. When you look so young, some patient’s Dental anxiety will also increase. This is something that should be sorted out.Thanks for sharing some great tips for that.

  • I’m quickly approaching 60, practicing since I was 24. As a petite redhead who looks years younger than I am, I’ve had every comment and reaction to being female especially when I started practicing, when a female dentist wasn’t common.
    I still am asked if I’m a hygienist or an assistant. and I keep correcting them.
    We each must find our path to professional acceptance with our patients and cohorts. Thanks for your excellent suggestions!

  • Excellent article. I experienced the same thing when I graduated dental school in 1979 at the age of 23.
    On one occasion, I had just done some extractions on a patient, and offered to write her a prescription for pain medication. The patient responded -“I’ll wait for the dentist- he can do that.” She then explained she thought I was the assistant!
    Things have changed over the years and the public has more acceptance of women in the health fields at higher levels. Your points are well taken, and yes, some HUMOR definitely helps!

    • Thank you for your feedback! A lot of younger dentists, especially women, are still experiencing the gender bias, from patients, peers, and dental trade. As dentistry is shifting to more females than males, it will take some time before the public perception changes. It will take concerted efforts from different levels to change the perception. We have much work to do.

  • Excellent points. It’s unfortunate that we, as women of color have to act a certain way out of our own norm in order to garner the same regards as that our male counterparts would achieve without changing much of their dementors. I have been practicing for a while but not long enough to say I’m a old seasoned professional; yet, I endure much of what you experience from not just my patients but also colleagues. I will try to practice what you pointed out, which don’t get me wrong are good points. Instead of changing our clothes to fit the profile, im hopeful that in the future we could be more prominent in the media. If only there could be a culture change of how people view a well qualified female professional vs a male. Thoughts and comments are welcomed.

    • Great feedback. I hope we don’t need to make adjustments in order to “fit in” in the future. Let’s hope together we can make positive changes to the profession.

  • Thanks for the tips. As a 33 year old Asian Male dentist who looks no older than 20, I am faced with such comments daily! Whether it’s a subtle “how long have you been doing this?” to “aren’t you too young to be doing this?”. At one point I contemplated putting white gel in my hair to age myself a bit. Now I just chuckle, tell them my age and say that I am aware that I appear much younger. I am able to win over the vast majority of these patients.

  • Great article. I am in my mid-thirties now. A few years back, I used to get upset when patients mention that I look young. Now I take it as a compliment, although I don’t hear it that often. And I also agree, attire and first impression play a big role in patient’s perception.

    • Thank you for your comments. It’s difficult not to take it personally, especially in the early years. I myself used to get offended. I just let it roll off of me right now. It does seem that a lot of younger dentists go through the same thing. It is part of personal growth.

  • Enjoy those comments while you can! I used to hear that a lot when I first started practicing 40 years ago, but I haven’t gotten that in a long, long time. I’ve heard it said that you need two things to be successful in dentistry: gray hair and hemorrhoids. Gray hair for the look of wisdom, and hemorrhoids for the look of concern.

    BTW, Yvonne who posted above was a classmate of mine! I’ll bet she still looks young. 🙂

  • Excellent written Dr. Hung and Congratulations on publishing this article.
    I am faced with such comments daily. But now this days I take it as a simple compliment.

  • Thank you for your insights Dr. As a petite and young looking female Orthodontist, 15 years into practice, I have often faced this bias and have subconsciously adopted and practiced a lot of the same tips you have shared and they do help significantly. What helps the most is the self assuredness and confidence that comes with being great at the job and conveying it in a very confident treatment plan discussion with the patients.

    • Thank you for your feedback. I can wholeheartedly relate to your experience. I am glad that you find the strategies helpful. Together, we can help to change the public’s perception.

  • That Was an Fantastic Article ! “Dress Professionally & Act Professionally with Staff Members” were Good Important Points Discussed on this Article. Great Blog to Read. Thanks for the Author!

  • Pingback: Learning from Dr. Cathy Hung - Sampada Deshpande, DDS

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