What's your character?

Nov. 17, 2011
Ethical dilemmas are not new to medicine or dentistry. The question is, what are we made of when we're faced with the decision?

As I sit here writing this article, I am listening to another broadcast of the current hot news topic — no, not Lindsay Lohan or Kim Kardashian. It’s the abuse scandal at Penn State. It’s very easy to sit in my chair and think “that’s terrible” (which it is), or wonder why the coaches didn't do more (which they should have), or even wonder why there are riots in support of Joe Paterno (when what he did appears to be so inadequate). I am reminded that it is a reflection of how we view those who are celebrities or in positions of power — putting them on pedestals, seeing them as above the rest of us or without fault — and that sometimes fear wins over courage. But then I realize that in some ways we are no different in dentistry.

As patients, we are taught to respect and trust our health-care providers and not question them. Some of that mentality has shifted with the changes in how health care is provided and the access to information via the Internet, but the heart of it remains. The hierarchy in dentistry feeds that mentality. Not only is the dentist the person with the most training and education, but he or she is also in a position of power (the employer). The result is that unethical behavior is not always challenged, and often ignored.

I am reminded of a time in my own career when I did not challenge the behavior of someone for whom I worked. While I have made my share of mistakes, there are only a few things for which I carry regret, and this instance is one of them. I was in my late 20s and working as a temporary clinical assistant. That day, I was in a pediatric practice. Without going into the details, I got that uh-oh feeling in my stomach and wanted to run, which hasn’t happened before or since. The problems involved treatment of patients and infection control practices.

Unsure what to do, I called a local dentist whom I respected and asked for his advice. He told me to keep my mouth shut, and that if I reported the behavior I would be blackballed and unable to find work again in the area. My mistake was that I listened to that dentist — and my fear — and I have regretted it ever since because I did not do anything to protect the patient. Given the chance to do it again, my choice would be different, but hindsight is always 20/20.

Ethical dilemmas aren’t new to medicine or dentistry — just watch “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Private Practice.” The question is, what are we made of when we’re faced with the decision? Are we willing to take our colleague (whether a dentist, hygienist, or assistant) off the pedestal and do the right thing, despite our fear? Are we willing to speak up for those who can’t, and ultimately protect the patient? I hope we can learn from each other’s mistakes and allow courage to be the guiding factor in our choices. Dentistry will be the better for it.

Claudia Pohl, CDA, RDA, FADAA, BVEd
President, American Dental Assistants Association

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