Dispensing advice and wisdom on About.com

Jan. 19, 2010
DAD Editor Kevin Henry interviews Shawn Watson, a dental assistant who became the voice of dentistry on About.com.

Editor’s Note: I recently had the chance to chat with Shawn Watson, who runs About.com’s Guide to Dentistry. About.com is part of The New York Times Company. About.com is a site that gets a lot of traffic and questions, so I wanted to see how Watson, a dental assistant, became the voice of dentistry on About.com. Following is her story, as well as a Q&A I did with her about the site.

I began my career as a dental assistant in 1998, after I graduated from Columbia College in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. From there I worked for many years as a dental assistant in a general dental practice. Then I was offered a rare opportunity to work as a receptionist for a prominent orthodontic office. I was reluctant to leave dental assisting for administrative duties, but I knew there must be a reason for this change. My instincts paid off when I was offered a position as an orthodontic dental assistant. I returned to Columbia College to obtain my orthodontic module in 2000, and from there my love for orthodontic dental assisting took over. I spent the next seven years as an orthodontic dental assistant, and loved every minute of it. I eventually ended up in a general practice that also treats orthodontic patients, the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

When my maternity leave ended after the birth of my second child, I found myself searching for an opportunity to remain at home with my children while continuing to earn a steady income. I was astounded to learn that the Guide to Dentistry position at About.com was available. After successfully completing a rigorous application process that involved an extensive analysis of my knowledge and writing skills, I was named Guide to Dentistry in March 2008.

Being the Guide to Dentistry for About.com has once again given me the opportunity to educate patients about their dental needs, and better explain why they require certain dental treatments. At About.com, we help consumers make good decisions about their everyday lives. We help people solve the tasks, issues, and challenges of their daily lives with reliable information. In a world filled with confusing, conflicting, and anonymous content, we provide a safe, well-lit place where information-overloaded consumers who are low on time can find guidance, not guesswork. Each month, 39 million unique users in the United States visit About.com (source: Average of 12-month period; Nielsen Online, October 2008).

About.com is one of the 15 most visited Web sites in the United States and consistently places among the top five sites for key verticals, including health, parenting, food, and education. About.com attracts more women than iVillage, more teens than MTV.com, and more men than ESPN.com. My ultimate goal is to once again work as a dental assistant, while remaining the Guide to Dentistry for About.com.

DAD: With About.com being geared toward the consumer, what are some of the most common questions you see on the site?

Shawn Watson: Lately I’ve encountered a number of questions from people looking for reassurance, to know that they are being offered the best treatment for their situation. We live in an age where the Internet has become a second opinion for many people, and they may feel as though they are not being offered all of the options available to them.

When I receive a question like this, I begin by thoroughly explaining the ins and outs of the procedure — from the moment they are given a local anesthetic, to the postoperative instructions they can expect afterward. By explaining the procedure in a way that makes sense to them, I think I help reiterate what the dentist has already explained. I make sure to stress to everyone who posts a question concerning their treatment that they should never feel like they can’t approach their dentist with any questions. My goal is to help patients realize that their dentist always welcomes their questions and concerns about their treatment plan.

DAD: What are some of the strangest questions you've seen posted?

Watson: My forum tends to receive a lot of questions that may seem obscure to the average person. As a dental assistant, I can honestly say that I haven’t encountered a strange question yet, but something that made me chuckle after I became the Guide to Dentistry was finding an old forum thread entitled “Sexy Occupation?!” Apparently being a dental assistant or dental hygienist is seen as one of the “top sexiest positions.” Who knew?!

DAD: What would you say are some of the hot topics being asked right now?

Watson: Health-care reform is a really hot topic across the board right now. I have noticed a lot of buzz surrounding dental insurance options, specifically whether or not one should consider signing up for a plan at this time. Also, with the current state of the economy, I have noticed several inquiries looking for a diagnosis over the Internet, or asking if their dental complaint even warrants a trip in to the dentist. People are really guarding their finances right now, and unfortunately this has caused a dangerous reluctance to visit their dentist with a complaint that may not seem to be much at the time.

DAD: How do you feel your background as a dental assistant guides you?

Watson: As dental assistants, we are involved with almost every aspect of the dental practice — from administrative tasks to sterilization. Being fully active throughout an office really gives us a huge advantage. We are only bettering ourselves by learning everything there is to know about dentistry and our particular dental practices. This is the reason my writing comes so naturally for me. When I’m writing for About.com, I feel as though I’m involved in a multidisciplinary office that happens to be on the Internet. This idea may sound obscure, but the advice I offer readers is essentially the same advice I would offer as a practicing dental assistant.

DAD: It's often said that people trust dental assistants implicitly with dental-related questions. Do you believe that? If so, do you think that helps consumers have a natural trust with you online?

Watson: Absolutely. There seems to be this terrible misconception that has patients convinced that dentists only recommend treatment that will best fill their bank accounts. This is painfully sad, but true. When a dentist proposes a $2,000 treatment plan that will only restore one tooth, a patient’s financial situation often overrules his or her instinct to save the tooth. As a dental assistant, you are often the person left alone with the patient to continue with the appointment booking process. This situation becomes very awkward when the patient questions the treatment plan and scrutinizes the cost with a fine-toothed comb. This is where a dental assistant can take advantage of the situation and establish a level of trust with the patient. By sitting down with the patient and thoroughly explaining the procedure, its benefits, and the consequences of neglecting the situation, she can build trust between not only herself and the patient, but also reassure the patient that the dentist has recommended the best treatment option, and therefore establish a level of trust between the patient and dentist that may not have been there before.

DAD: There's such a glut of information online. How do you make sure people come to your site and seek your guidance first?

Watson: My ultimate goal is to establish that level of trust I have mentioned throughout this interview. I feel trust is paramount to connect with readers in a way similar to how I would interact with my patients face-to-face. I never want anyone to feel like they are reading information out of a textbook, so I take the knowledge that I have obtained over the years and write articles that I feel will help someone better understand why the health of their teeth and gums is so important. But I do it in a way that is easily understood by anyone.

DAD: What's the best piece of advice you ever received as a dental assistant?

Watson: Over the years I have received a plethora of great advice that has essentially made me who I am today. The best advice I received came from some of the toughest dentists in the business. I gathered all of their constructive criticism, advice, and compliments and used it to my advantage to grow in my profession in ways that I never thought possible.

Dental assisting is truly a rewarding career option for anyone who wants to become better as a person. Dental assistants really are the soul of the dental office. I feel very privileged to offer my knowledge in this capacity, and I hope to allow other dental assistants out there to express their love for the profession as well. Dental assistants can visit my site and share their inspirational stories and photos with my readers.